Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis

Purchased from the Book Depository

Here are a few things we learn about Lionel Asbo in the opening pages of Martin Amis’ new novel:

1.

Lionel was there, a great white shape, leaning on the open door with his brow pressed to his raised wrist, panting huskily, and giving off a faint grey steam in his purple singlet (the lift was misbehaving, and the flat was on the thirty-third floor — but then again Lionel could give off steam while dozing in bed on a quiet afternoon). Under his arm he was carrying a consignment of lager. Two dozen, covered in polythene. Brand: Cobra.

2. The narrator, his 15-year-old nephew and flatmate Des, doesn’t know what Lionel’s trade is but he has a fair idea: “Extortion with Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property were what Lionel most often went to prison for.”

3. Lionel has native intelligence but he does his best to deny it, right down to misleading mispronunciation. His sometime girlfriend Cynthia is known to Lionel as Cymfia. He pronounces ‘myth’ miff and full possessive pronouns like ‘your, their, my’ make only ‘guest appearances’ in his language, the preferred form being as in “Now wolves, they not men’s natural enemy. Oh no. You wolf won’t attack a human” (this by way of explaining the lineage of the dogs who are the “menaces” in his Extortion with Menaces business). And he pronounces his own name Loyonel or even Loyonoo.

4. Lionel received his first Restraining Directive (the precursor to the Baby ASBO — “which (as all the kingdom now knew) stood for Anti-Social Behaviour Order” — at age three years and two days, a national record. He celebrated his coming of age by changing his surname from Pepperdine to Asbo by deed poll on the day of his eighteenth birthday.

That gives you a flavor of the title character; let’s add a brief indicator of young Des. As the book opens, we meet him addressing a letter to Jennaveieve, the Agony Angel/Ecstasy Aunt columnist of the Diston Gazette, the community newspaper in the London neighborhood where he and Uncle Li live. He is seeking advice on the legality of an affair he is having with his Granny Grace — not totally as bad as it might seem at first since Grace had her first child at 12, her last of seven (Lionel) at 19 and now is still only 39. An indication of the nature of the Pepperdine family is that Lionel and her first child (Cilla, Des’ mother) are called “the twins” because they are the only two of the seven who have the same father.

Obviously, Martin Amis, known for pushing the envelope in all his fiction, has gone over the top in this one, if you will permit the mixed metaphor. Slogging a “two-four” up 33 flights? A Restraining Order (for smashing car windows with paving stones) at age three? An affair with your Gran? — the serious nature of which is illustrated by Lionel’s violent distaste for the “Grans I’d Like to Fuck” classified advertising feature in his favorite national tabloid, the Morning Lark (which makes the Sun seem seriously upmarket).

All of that occurs in Part One (of four) of the book. Any notion that the novel might settle down to a “normal” approach is dispelled in the opening of Part Two. Lionel, locked up in Stallwort remand prison along with scores of other relatives and friends after a wedding reception dust-up ended up doing six hundred and fifty thousand pounds of damage to the host hotel, is called to the Governor’s office. A month or so earlier, Lionel had passed on to Des a lottery ticket that he’d filched (he regards the Lottery itself as “a fucking mug’s game”). Des had filled it out and sent it in — the Governor informs Lionel that he has won £139,999,999.50 in the Lottery.

So, for the rest of the novel (there’s close to 200 pages to go), we are dealing with one rich Asbo, perhaps better represented as ASBO, but then Amis loves his word play. I’ve given away enough already (and rest assured it merely supplies a taste of what is to come — there as a large cast of equally strange supporting characters I’ve overlooked) but by now you should have a good idea of whether or not this is a novel for you.

North American cover

I’ll admit to approaching Lionel Asbo with much trepidation. I’ve read a fair bit of Amis’ fiction over the years (you can find reviews of Money (1984) and The Pregnant Widow (2010) on this site) and he is one of those authors whose appeal has been steadily sliding. And the reviews that I had read of Lionel Asbo were anything but promising — The Economist’s conclusion was “rather like flicking through Hello magazine or picking your nose, the rewards are limited.”

So it is a delight to report that, for this reader at least, this novel marks a return to the early form that made Martin Amis rightly famous. Every bit of it is truly over the top, but for good reason. The cover of the UK version that I read has a small label at the bottom reading “State of England” — and Amis (who has been living in New York for several years) has loaded up every satirical weapon he has to yet again take aim at his native country. Unlike some of the recent books where that has become predictably tedious, I like to think that he has deliberately overdone the approach in this one as a pointer to the reader that none of this should be taken too literally — but that perhaps it might be directionally correct (that’s the kind of posh phrase to which Lionel, Loyono, Loyonel, whatever, occasionally soars).

The result of all this was a very fun read, with many out-loud chuckles and a lot of smiles of “dead on there” along the way. I’d offer only one small caveat. By their very nature, satires (especially outrageous ones) are difficult to bring to a close — I found in the last few chapters of Lionel Asbo it helped to be thinking more “thanks for the trip that is approaching its end” rather than “I can’t wait to see where this ends up”. The journey itself was rewarding enough.

(EDIT: The first few comments that I received persuaded me that I should include a copy of the North American cover, which I think reflects the different attitude NA readers might take to the story. Head to comments for more discussion.)

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15 Responses to “Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    “Now wolves, they not men’s natural enemy. Oh no. You wolf won’t attack a human”

    Nobody speaks like that. Certainly not the class depicted. I appreciate it’s not realistic, but I do wonder what the target of his satire is if the ostensible target doesn’t actually exist.

    I wonder if this one is more fun for those who aren’t British. My concern is that it reeks of class hatred, a demonisation of a group that Amis has no knowledge of or contact with. It smacks of tabloid prejudice, a satire of an England that exists only in the fantasies of a certain kind of low-rent journalism.

    Or is he satirising that journalism? Portraying the England they pretend exists? Nothing I’ve read suggests he is, but if not then I return to the question of who the target of the satire is? Surely he’s not really satirising people who don’t actually exist? What would be the point?

  2. John Sampson Says:

    I never ‘got’ Amis Jr, unlike his dad so I always read his books without trying to make too much sense of it. I just let the prose flow and if it sticks, good. If not, it is no great loss.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      John: From my experience, Amis’ prose always flows — the problem is that sometimes the story grates intolerably. I agree with the sense of your comment as it applies to this novel — if you are willing to accept the dubious premises on which Amis bases both Lionel and Des, then there is a flow to the book. There certainly was for me.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: My interpretation would be that Amis is satirizing stereotypes. Those of us who watch English crime DVDs know that lifts don’t work in estate towers — but they are six storeys, not 33, high. And we certainly have an impression of tabloids — but the Morning Lark goes well beyond that. Etc., etc.

    What I think is different about this novel from the other recent ones is that instead of sticking his tongue out at the world he is writing about, Amis has planted it firmly in cheek. So the “satire” is as much about his (and his readers’) impressions as it is the actual subject. What was bitter in those previous books is mixed with a healthy dose of humor in this one.

    In that sense, I think the “State of England” label on the cover (and it is even bigger on the NA version to be released later this month) is somewhat misleading. I suspect you are right that this has more appeal to those of us who aren’t British (and maybe reflects Amis’ own residence in North America).

    Maybe if I had called it “farce” instead of “satire” it would have landed differently? I’d have a tough time saying which one it really is. I wouldn’t pretend that this is a novel for everyone — but I did find it to be a worthwhile counterpoint to many that I have read (and enjoyed).

    • Lee Monks Says:

      Excellent review as always, Kevin. I’m going to agree with both you and Max, here. Whilst I would concede that this book is often uproariously funny (and the preposterous nature of Lionel’s weird speech is very much part of the mirth factor for me: Amis is brilliant at getting nonsensical comments to work simply by the bizarre cadences and omissions and inappropriate yet somehow successful alterations made. It’s part of the implicit understanding that Lionel is talking gibberish, yet gibberish that speaks some kind of warped truth, that circumvents any considerations as to verisimilitude. If that makes sense at all…) I still think that Amis is seethingly contemptuous of Lionel’s non-fictional contemporaries and their milieu. This is also beyond satire, as you say, and is completely farcical. But it’s very funny, and that makes it a highly successful comic novel. At least, rather than taking pseudo-sociological potshots per se, he’s demolishing a caricature. However inaccurate and mean-spirited it may or may not be, it seems at times to have a peculiar warmth to it, as though Amis is mocking the parochial and impoverished nature of his own ill-equipped observation. And anyway, thank God it’s not as dismal as the last one.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: Many thanks for bridging the gap between Max’s response and my review. Lionel does talk gibberish, but it does have a “warped truth” hidden inside it. And, if you can get over the hump of “can any of this be real?”, it is comic writing of the first order.

    I did reread the first half of the novel before I wrote my review, just to confirm my first impressions that it was an impressive work. I’ll admit I saved a reread of the second half for later — “a peculiar warmth” is not a phrase that I would have come up with but it is a perfect description of my impression on the novel.

    Thanks.

    And, for regular visitors here, a “standy-by” note. This seems to be the year of the “state of England novel” — perhaps “state of London” might be more appropriate. John Lanchester’s Capital was my first and I loved it. Lionel Asbo is the second. From reviews that I have read, Keith Ridgway addresses much the same theme in a very different way in Hawthorn and Child ( for a review check out John Self here). Ridgway’s novel just arrived in my postbox today — I’ll get to it in a week or two. We are Olympic fans in this household and we’ll be steeped in television portrayals of London for the next few weeks — these three novels seem to provide an excellent alternate point of view.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    Good to know that you liked this as I have it on my radar. I wondered about the class thing, so I’ll keep that in mind when I read it.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I should have said in my response to Max that the novel also offers takes on middle class and posh types as well — although it obviously features the bottom end. Having said that, part of what is attractive about Des is that he really does want out. In short, there is more to the novel than my sketchy review indicates.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Kevin, I’ll pop back with a longer comment later, but as a kid my aunt’s tower block was well over 20 stories (she was around 14 or 15 and the lifts were routinely broken) and that wasn’t unusual. 33 is an exaggeration, but not as much as you might think.

    • Lee Monks Says:

      I forgot to mention, in passing, that my cousin currently lives in a 20-odd storey tower block, and that such sizable structures are still dotted around. But Max reminded me.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Of course, part of the charm of this one is that the elevator (most of the time) actually works up to about floor 20 — Lionel and Des keep passing each other in the stairwells between floors 20 and 33.

        That’s part of why I think this is tongue-in-cheek satire (comic is in fact a much better description) not a serious critique of the wealth of targets Amis manages to find.

  8. tolmsted Says:

    Kevin –
    Thanks for the review. I’ve only read two of Martin Amis’ books – London Fields and House of Meetings – so my opinion is based on only a small sampling.

    I’ve never been able to decide what to make of him. His prose is nice, but he seems to recycle his male protagonist from book to book. The typical lower middle class, blue-collar stereotype: brutish, criminal, violent and cruel. Lionel Asbo strikes me as more of the same.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    tolmsted: I’d agree that this is “more of the same” (and that your summary of Amis is close to accurate). What I found different with this novel was that I thought Martin was pointing the knife at himself as often as he did his other targets.

  10. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    I just finished Lionel Asbo, and cant help thinking that I read two books. The first half of the book was droll, often laugh out loud funny, with interesting, if bizarre characters. Then, it steeply declined into the absurd, with improbable and empty characters whose crazy pursuits held no interest for me. Amis says he regards comtemporary England with great affection – I couldn’t see it in this book.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I share your impression that there seem to be two very different books here, although perhaps not as deeply. And I also much preferred the satire of the first part of the book.

      In his appearance at Banff a week ago, Amis said that part of his new “maturity” was that he has decided not to worry if people found his writing “sentimental” — that it was much easier to write a convincing “baddie” than it was to adequately portray a “goodie”. Unfortunately (perhaps because I liked the satire so much), I was not able to make the shift with him when the novel began to focus more on Des, certainly a more decent person than Lionel, but for me a less interesting one. I would not go so far as to say it was sentimental, but it certainly headed in that direction.

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