Archive for the ‘Amis, Martin (3)’ Category

Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis

July 23, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

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


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.)


The Pregnant Widow, by Martin Amis

March 4, 2010

Purchased from the Book Depository

For readers who are old enough (that would include me), picking up Martin Amis The Pregnant Widow is like turning your personal clock back four decades, in more ways than one. Part of that is obviously the setting: Most of the book centres on the experiences of a handful of British twentysomethings who are spending the summer of 1970 at a castle in the mountains of Italy. For those who have read Amis, part also lies in the echoes in this new novel of his very first, The Rachel Papers, published in 1973. Amis has admitted that he re-read that novel “for research purposes” while writing this one — even more remiscient than the similar time frame and subject matter of the two novels is that in this one he returns to a much more conventional approach to writing than has been seen in his more recent novels.

More clock-turning than anything else, however, is the central preoccupation of the novel: Sex. Amis makes this clear as he opens the novel proper:

It was the summer of 1970, and time had not yet trampled them flat, these lines:

Sexual intercourse began
In 1963
(Which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles first LP.

Philip Larkin, ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (formerly ‘History’), Cover Magazine, February 1968

But now it was the summer of 1970, and sexual intercourse was well advanced. Sexual intercourse had come a long way, and was much on everyone’s mind.

Sexual intercourse, I should point out, has two unique characteristics. It is indescribable. And it peoples the world. We shouldn’t find it surprising, then, that it is much on everyone’s mind.

Martin Amis was born in 1949, as was Keith Nearing, the central character in the book. I was born in 1948 — while I never summered in a castle in Italy, I was still part of the “revolution” that this book explores.

It is worth describing just what things were like for a 21-year-old in 1970. If you were a male Brit (or Canadian), you were very glad you weren’t American — men of your age were being sent off in the draft to die in a pointless war. If you were a student (as the characters here are), the previous decade had closed with sit-ins, occupations and violence — French students came that close to overthrowing the government. The feminist movement was gaining strength; the first gay activists were coming out (there is a gay couple in the book). Those Beatles that Larkin describes had also radically changed the whole notion of “music”. But it is also true that, at least at an individual level, the most “revolutionary” thing was sex. Yes, it had always been there, but the Pill had changed everything — both males and females were fully aware that there were no precedents to tell them what that change meant, they just had to learn through experience. This was different from all that had come before.

The novel’s title, drawn from a epigraph from Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen, acknowledges that:

The death of contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

Twenty-year-old Keith is at the castle with Lily, on a “trial reconciliation” which we know from the start is not going to go well. He is walking the streets of Montale with Lily (5’5″, 34-25-34) and Scheherazade (5’10”, 37-23-33). Keith himself is not quite 5’7″ but he is already obsessed by Scheherazade and Lily is full aware of that. This was not an unusual circumstance at that time; remember, both young males and females were trying to figure out what the new order was and they didn’t have much to go by, beyond hormonal pressure.

While these three are at centre stage in the opening parts of the book, Amis does indicate that the other residents of the castle are also on there own voyages of discovery. Everyone does have a partner of sorts, but that doesn’t get in the way of experimentation. A very rich Italian count, Adriano, wanders into the story and becomes even more obsessed with Scheherazade than Keith is — alas, his height (4’10”) puts him at a bit of a disadvantage but the bank account and his helicopter are offsetting factors.

The kids spend a lot of time at the pool in various states of undress or no dress at all. You can imagine the effect that Scheherazade, who favors a monokini, has on Keith. It is also where we first meet Gloria (nicknamed Junglebum by Lily), who will become the most threatening character in the book.

While the sex is always there, Amis does head off along some other avenues. Narcissism is a frequent theme — the 61-year-old author can look at his 20-year-old self with quite a critical eye. Keith is also an English student, working his way through the classics (Austen, Hardy, Eliot and Dickens, among others) as the summer progresses — he has a vague notion that he’d like to work for the Times Supplement. (I should note that the book has many literary references — Ted Hughes, Saul Bellow, William Blake and William Shakespeare are some others.)

Despite the book’s often absurd plot lines, if you lived through the time, it strikes a responsive note. Our generation was self-indulged to the point of narcissism, perhaps at its worst at the fully-developed, but not-yet-quite-adult age. The confusing and often damaging response to the sexual revolution which the 24-year-old Amis explored in The Rachel Papers is examined with a much more sceptical eye in this novel. And the curious removal of these kids from any aspect of the “real” world is a reflection of the times, which I am sure grates on any one who was not of that age (none of these people thought about preparing or applying for a job because when the time came that you had to have one there were lots of choices available — no wonder Generations X, Y and Z hate us).

If the strength of the book is the accuracy with which it captures that age for those of us who went through it, that is also its biggest weakness. I suspect a 35-year-old reader would cheerfully spit on all these characters. And it must be admitted that we males did not treat women very well then (and Amis is not very kind in his portrayal of women), so I also suspect a lot of women readers might equally find the book wanting.

Even this 62-year-old male (that hardly seems to be a fiction reading demographic likely to make The Pregnant Widow a bestseller) has some serious problems with the book. Amis tries to add weight and meaning to his story with “intervals” — observations from the narrator set in 2009:

They were the children of the Golden Age (1948?-73), elsewhere known as Il Maracolo Economico, La Trente Glorieuses, Der Wirtschaftswunder. The Golden Age, when they never had it so good.

What you could hear in the background, during this period, was progress music. The sort of music you heard, for instance, in Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones (1961). We don’t mean the songs. We’re thinking of that long sequence when, with a tap-tap here and a knock-knock there, and to the sound of progress music, the young ones transform a derelict building into a thriving community centre — a youth club, for the young ones.

In the Golden Age progress music was heard in the background by nearly everybody. The first phone, the first car, the first house, the first summer holiday, the first TV — all to progress music. Then the arrival of sexual intercourse, in 1966, and the full ascendancy of the children of the Golden Age.

(SPOILER PARAGRAPH) Perhaps the biggest shortfall of the book is that Amis chooses to end it with a 72-page “Coda” (I am all for codas, but 72 pages is a bit much) where he fast forwards through what happened to the characters between 1970 and 2009, with a couple of pages devoted to almost every year in between. While it seems to be intended to add weight and meaning to the first 80 per cent of the book (all that growing up behavior had consequences), it ends up achieving the opposite effect, almost as though the author lost confidence in the story he had just spent almost 400 pages on and now has to head in another direction.

Despite that, I found the book more than worthwhile (again, with the caveat that maybe you had to be there for it to land that way). This is what it was like — and as the last few decades and particularly last few years have shown, it will never be like this again. That did produce consequences in the current day — with or without the coda, I think most readers can grasp that and draw some of their own conclusions. If you were coming of age in 1970, it definitely rewards the read. I’ll leave it to younger readers to offer an opinion on whether, alas, that might be a necessary condition for it to be a worthwhile book.

Blog Tribute #2, The Asylum: Money, by Martin Amis

December 2, 2009

Purchased at

I first came across book blogger John Self on the 2008 Man Booker forum — I’d only just begun exploring the net for book comments and that was one of my first stops. We seemed to have a significant overlap of common interests, I learned a lot from his perceptive comments and was even more impressed when I started visiting his site, The Asylum. It quickly became a regular stop for me and when I contemplated starting this blog, John’s approach served as a model for what I hoped to accomplish. John is a new father and has put the Asylum on “break” for a while but don’t let that stop you from visiting — there is a wealth of content in the archives and you will soon discover that his reviews provoke some of the most interesting and informative content exchanges that you can find anywhere.

I found out fairly quickly that “John Self” was a nom-de-net, but a gaping hole in my own reading meant that it was some months before I realized that the alias had actually been drawn from Martin Amis’ Money. My relationship with Amis runs hot and cold — we are virtually the same age and I’d read a number of his early novels (The Rachel Papers and London Fields come quickly to mind) but I had somehow missed this 1984 novel. I’ll admit that I have been much less interested in Amis’ more recent non-fiction work and there is a part of me that wonders if he is now not a lot more interested in being Amis the character rather than Amis the novelist. With a new novel (The Pregnant Widow) due out next year (after a couple of years of delays), I marked Money down as a suitable book for a year-end read, both to discover the fictional John Self and remind myself what the 35-year-old Amis was producing.

While I am glad that I made the journey, allow me to jump to my overriding conclusion: Money, for this reader at least, has not aged very well. There are certainly some interesting reminders of 1980s but Amis’ wit and satire (“shocking, funny and on-target portraits of life in the fast lane” is the back cover description) seem dated and overdrawn to the point of being merely crude, at least to this contemporary reader.

The John Self of the book is a 35-year-old London-based producer of edgy television advertising who is about the break into the movie world as a director with his first feature film, to be called either “Bad Money” or “Good Money” — he and his American producer haven’t quite decided yet. Actually all they have is John’s concept and producer Fielding Goodney’s apparent access to investor money. Getting “stars” and a script occupies much of the action in this narrative stream in the novel — it is a tease, not a spoiler, to say that novelist Martin Amis eventually appears in the book as a script rewriter.

John drinks (a lot), eats fast food (a lot) and obsesses about sex (more than a lot). He is in a long-term relationship (well, more than a few months at least) but that doesn’t assuage that last obsession:

Everything was on offer outside. Boylesk, assisted showers, live sex, a we-never-close porn emporium bristling in its static. They even had the real thing out there, in prostitute form. But I wasn’t buying, not tonight. I walked back to the hotel without incident. Nothing happened. It never does, but it will.

It definitely does. John has another obsession, that his girl, Selina Street, is having an ongoing affair, probably produced by the childhood sexual abuse that formed her character:

It must be tiring knowledge, the realization that half the members of the planet, one on one, can do what the hell they like with you.

And it must be extra tough on a girl like Selina, whose appearance, after many hours at the mirror, is a fifty-fifty compromise between the primly juvenile and the grossly provocative. Her tastes are strictly High Street too, with frank promise of brothelly knowhow and top-dollar underwear. I’ve followed Selina down the strip, when we’re shopping, say, and she strolls on ahead, wearing sawn-off jeans and a wash-withered T-shirt, or a frilly frock measuring the brink of her russety thighs, or a transparent coating of gossamer, like a condom, or an abbreviated school uniform…The men wince and watch, wince and watch.

As the title states, the unifying theme to all this is “money” — to make the movie, to finance the booze and travel, to purchase (or help obtain) the sex. John bounces back and forth between London and New York, while also bouncing between all the concerns that his obsessions (including making the movie) produce, but the one constant is the money — at this stage, mainly spending, but with the promise of also obtaining.

All of this creates the opportunity for the novelist of a wealth of set pieces where he can take aim at people with (or without) money, the relationship between money and sex, the consumerism (or lack thereof) that money permits. The jacket calls this a “frightening picture of Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s England” but for me at least that is a major, major stretch — while Prince Charles and Diana figure in the book (the action is set in the summer of their marriage), the political leaders do not. I’d say that if you were looking for an over-arching theme (beyond money and what it, or the lack of it, does) it would be an exploration of what the era of the permissive sixties has produced a decade and a half down the road. As can be expected of Amis, it is not a pretty picture.

I expect this novel would have landed better with me if I had read it when it was published — it might even land better with me now if I had not lived through that era myself. Unfortunately, as it was, John’s excesses become increasingly tiresome and even some clever plot work towards the end fails to brighten the novel up. I couldn’t help but wonder as I read the book that sometimes edgy writing and satire begins the process of shrinking at the same rate and timing as the circumstances that produced it. Perhaps Amis was just too timely in this work. Or the blogging John Self can explain to me how I totally miss the point of novel narrator John Self.

I still intend to read the new novel and, as a result of reading Money, will approach it with even more curiousity. Amis’ frequent ventures into controversy have kept his name and reputation at the centre of attention — I’ll be interested in what the now 60-year-old novelist has to say in this new work.

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