It is fascinating to think how much time Martin Amis must have spent in imagining his brutish anti-hero, Lionel Asbo. Every aspect of this character is utterly detestable and just when the reader thinks Lionel has reached the limit of his mean and heartless behaviour he will do something to make the reader despise him even more. Lionel is a petty criminal who lives in the fictional English town of Diston (meaning Dystopia) where the citizens live short miserable lives in ignorance and poverty. Here Lionel gets along as a small time extortionist and money collector using his two pit bulls as the, “tools of me trade”. He hones their viciousness by tormenting them with sticks and smothering their food with hot sauce so that their digestions are continuously upset. Juxtaposed to Lionel and truly the protagonist of this story is his young nephew, Desmond Pepperdine who is taken under Lionel’s wing when his mother Cilla, Lionel’s sister, dies. Her one night stand with a gentle Trinidadian resulted in Desmond’s procreation. Martin Amis has obviously worked hard to create a true satire so that even the names of his characters have certain significance. Take for example the nephew’s name, Pepperdine. Like the ill-treated pit bulls Desmond is forced to dine on Lionel’s acidic indifference to his painful loneliness. Desmond craves affection, Lionel shrugs off any demonstration of affection but like the dogs, Desmond loves him anyway. Then there is Lionel’s adopted surname; ASBO, which is the acronym for Anti Social Behaviour Order. This was a measure adopted by the British Parliament to address the borderline bad behaviour of young people without having to send them to reform school or prison. Lionel reveled in being anti social and totally incorrigible and so changed his name to ASBO as an affirmation of this.
Lionel, the young adult, spent much of his time in and out of prison, which did not bother him in the least. He rather liked prison and admitted something to the effect that when in prison “at least you know where you are”. During one of his prison sojourns he wins a lottery in the multi-millions. The money does not improve his lot in life, as his rapid rise to millionaire status becomes the fascination of the popular press. Lionel does not adjust well to fame and his early combative attitude toward reporters earns him the ignoble title of Lotto Lout.
Lionel does not share his fortune with any members of his family including his nephew Desmond and his half brothers John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart (this is Martin Amis having fun with celebrity names). The brothers all have in common their mother Grace but each has a different father and all live in a state of poverty. Even Grace is not permitted any favourable share of the lottery fortune. Lionel figures he is being generous when he sees that she is tucked away in a distant nursing home and forced to live in isolation suffering from untreated clinical depression. (not a nice thing to do to your mother).
In the meantime there is another storyline running in the background. Desmond has a secret. At the impressionable age of fifteen Granny Grace seduced him. Grace, a young grandmother at forty-eight was something of a nymphomaniac while Desmond was a confused orphan in need of a little human affection. The affair is introduced in the first chapter of the story which was the point at which my husband threw the book aside deciding it was too strange and unbelievable. Admittedly this aspect of the story is a bit ‘over the top’ but I think the reader has to keep in mind that the novel is a satire and is meant to be outrageous along the lines of something created by the Monty Python crew. Desmond’s secret is a constant worry. He knows that if Lionel finds out about the affair the consequences could be fatal for him because although Lionel is an amoral sort of dullard, when it came to his mother he had no tolerance for her flirtatious behaviour. Later the incestuous affair is a key to one of the more sinister twists in the plot.
Desmond remains in the old high-rise, low-rental apartment he had shared with Lionel but eventually meets the love of his life, Dawn whose gentle influence and optimistic name inaugurates the dawn of a better life for Desmond. They finish school and then college, struggling with their finances but enjoying fulfilled lives. Lionel too finds a somewhat stable partner in a poetess named Threnody. Her name means “a lamentation esp. on a person’s death (Concise Oxford Dictionary. I had to look it up). So who is dead?…not Lionel as he is ever blustering around even while in prison. I think the lament is for what currently passes as the literary arts. Threnody is a poetess producing the occasional thin volume of poetry. She makes her living as a nude model for the tabloids and a publicist specialising in improving the image of the famous and the notorious. Thus she promotes the wealthy with their couturier clothing and their fabulous yachts and manipulates the paparazzi into turning the most heinous, such as Lionel, into the darlings of the press.
Encouraged by Threnody, Lionel, purchases a huge Downton Abbey style country estate full of art work and precious antiques that Lionel regards as junk he would like throw away. He says he hates the old stuff because, “it aggravates me class hatred.” To make himself feel a little more at home he changes the name of this historic mansion once visited by Henry VIII from Crendon Court to Wormwood Scrubs, the name of the last prison where he had been an inmate. Lionel is never content to let go of his old petty criminal way of life and so, to maintain a toe hold in that past existence he insists on keeping a key and possession of one of the bedrooms of Desmond’s and Dawn’s apartment even though they need the room for the baby they are expecting.
Despite his wealth and despite the existence of people who want to love him Lionel never evolves as a person, never improves, never grows up; he never engages in self discovery, never sees beyond his own limited circle. He is a misogynist who prefers pornography to developing even a superficial physical relationship with a woman much less an emotional one. Oddly, in an interview with a famous newspaper columnist he said that he would like to leave a legacy, something for people to remember him by and the writer wonders to herself will that legacy be ‘how to fill out a lottery card.” Even Lionel’s pit bulls manage to find improvement in their lives when Dawn takes over their care and feeds them a normal doggie diet and a little affection. They learn to prefer curling up on the couch and having their ears caressed to pounding around on their four paws snarling and snapping at people. Lionel on the other hand always remains a sort of human pit-bull.
The sub-title of this book is: State of England. If this is a clue as to what the book is about it seems Martin Amis would have us think that there is a large number of the English reading public who believe everything they read or hear in the entertainment news. Although, as an aside, here in Canada we have the example of Toronto mayor, Rob Ford who, while not quite a Lionel ASBO has nonetheless admitted to criminal activity; smoking crack cocaine while in office and has been seen on video drinking excessively and generally acting more like a ridiculous buffoon than a statesman. Months after all this has come to light Rob Ford is not only still in office but he is planning to run again in the next municipal election!!!!! The Canadian press, including the Toronto Star and even the tight-laced, CBC cannot get enough of his antics. To think that he should be given equal time in a news report as the assimilation of the Crimea is very sobering and lends credibility to Martin Amis’s concern.
I think this book could have come together quite well as a graphic novel which would have better suited the cartoonish nature of its principal characters and probably found a wider audience. I loved the author’s play on words and literary references or maybe I was reading too much into some of his writing. For example Des and Dawn lived in Avalon Towers… might that be a reference to the towers of King Arthur… a recognition of those with nobler ideals? The irony of the whole thing is that while Martin Amis deplores the myths and distortions created by the English tabloid press and the avid support it gets from its readership his own beautiful crisp, readable prose negates the very idea that English literature is in decline.