Lionel Asbo: State of England
Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £18.99
Although he is nowadays associated with American rhythms and American women and American real estate, and has a taste for writers with names such as Saul and Kurt and Don and Elmore, the most ambitious, seductive and, at 62, promising English novelist of his generation started off as a neo-Dickensian. “For I had begun to explore the literary grotesque,” Charles Highway explains, giving an account of his “nocturnal reading”, a little way into Martin Amis’s first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), “in particular the writings of Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka, to find a world full of the bizarre surfaces and sneaky tensions with which I was always trying to invest my own life.” Occasionally, Charles Highway finds something in the writings of Charles Dickens so close to his desires for his own life that he plagiarises it – or perhaps, in wearing “wiry wings” on either side of an “else” bald head, Charles’s father was simply plagiarising Mr Podsnap.
Like Angus Wilson and Edmund Wilson, like George Gissing and George Orwell, like V S Pritchett and F R Leavis, Amis expressed strong views on Dickens’s legacy. “While assured of his status as a great writer,” he wrote in the New Statesman in November 1973, “Dickens is still uncertain of his status as a serious one. He insists on being romantic, melodramatic, unrepresentational (like his trashier contemporaries) and will not be adult, introspective, mimetic (like the major Victorians).”
Following Northrop Frye, Amis saw the Dickens novel as the stage for a conflict between the “congenial” society, “mostly featureless and uniform . . . normally based round a quite young, and quite boring, couple”, and an “obstructing” society that is “far more exuberantly imagined”. Being “more vulgarly romantic” than Jane Austen, Dickens transformed these opposed societies into “the hidden, elemental worlds of Good and Bad”. The amnesiac heroine of Amis’s fourth novel, Other People: a Mystery Story (1981), reads a Dickens omnibus and notes that, in every story, “a nice young man and a nice young woman weaved through a gallery of grimacing villains, deformed wags and rigid patriarchs until, after an illness or a separation or a long sea voyage, they came together and lived happily ever after”.
Amis’s version of Dickens’s work – what it stands for, what it amounts to, the possibilities it flourishes – is narrow, to say the least, and so when he composes a more or less straight piece of updated Dickens pastiche, as he has done in Lionel Asbo: State of England, it is best to lower, or narrow, your expectations. The novel contains a nice young man in Desmond Pepperdine, orphan and autodidact; a nice young woman in his girlfriend, Dawn Sheringham; and a grimacing villain, or a grimacing anti-hero, in his uncle Lionel Pepperdine (“the great asocial”), “a subsistence criminal” who changed his name by deed poll to Asbo when he turned 18.
Lionel, being Desmond’s guardian, doubles as a rigid patriarch. The last-act reunion of Desmond and Dawn comes after an illness and a separation. Long train journeys take the place of long sea voyages.
Six years Desmond’s senior, Lionel is “a heavily weathered 21” when the novel begins. He doesn’t get any healthier as things progress, though he does get richer, and very quickly. About a quarter of the way into the novel, Lionel learns that he has won “very slightly” less than £150m in the National Lottery. He becomes tabloid-famous overnight (“Lotto Lout” is just one of his many alliterative nicknames). Then, after another stint in prison and a period of aggressive bachelorhood, he picks up a poet/glamour-model girlfriend, the colourful “Threnody”, all the while proving worthy of mock-heroic vocabulary (“Lionel betook himself to the Bolingbroke Bar”) and mock-heroic, Shakespearean allusion (“Propped up on silken pillows, Lionel Asbo sat in the great barge of the four-ton four-poster”). But all the money and fame and splendour make Lionel feel numb. He misses his old life; he even misses jail (“You know where you are in prison”).
If one can tell the preoccupations of an Amis novel by looking out for the phrase “much on X’s mind/s”, then London Fields (1989) is about death (“Death is much on people’s minds”), The Pregnant Widow (2010) is about sex (“Sexual intercourse . . . was much on everyone’s minds”) and Lionel Asbo is about the criminal law (“Criminal law was in any case much on his mind”). Desmond, who has committed statutory rape by having an affair with his 39-year-old grandmother, becomes a crime reporter, to his uncle’s dismay. There are scenes set in a courtroom and a remand prison. A murder committed early in the book has consequences further down the line. But the novel is also concerned with other symptoms of social decay – with single mothers and gang violence and all those things that have been much on Amis’s mind and that evidently left him feeling, like Terence in Success (1978), that there was nothing for him to do in London except gaze at aeroplanes and beg them to take him to America. (Eventually one did.)
It is tempting to see the London of Lionel Asbo less as a caricature of the declinist viewpoint than as a straightforward presentation of how things look to a physically vulnerable, surrealistically well-spoken family man who spends more time reading Saul Bellow and conservative newspapers than walking the streets – the “moronic inferno”, not as nightmare, but as reality.
It is clear by now that Amis’s updated Dickensianism is at least as interested in race as class. “We live in Bayswater – district of the transients,” writes Terence in Success: “A fucked-up Arab comes here and is an automatic success”; his sort-of-brother Gregory describes taking “a late safari down the Bayswater Road and Queensway, that unpoliced, forsaken strip of cruising Mediterraneans, sick vagrants, wheeling drunks and rare taxis”. In The Information (1995), we encounter such formulations as “given a black eye by a black guy”, “as black as the bedroom of Dominique-Louise”, “a big black guy in a big black leather coat”, “the black guy cast out of black iron”. Samson Young, the narrator of London Fields, explains that Keith Talent was struggling because: “[B]lack people are better at fighting than white people, because, among other reasons, they all do it (there aren’t any civilians).”
Although Diston Town, the borough where Desmond and Dawn live, and where Lionel lives until his Lottery win (and pines for once he has moved to Essex), is “as white as Belgravia”, Lionel Asbo contains some queasy-making reflections on race. Despite the lack of black or Asian competition, Lionel’s “training tools” for his dogs include “ethnic mannequins”. Awestruck fetishism of the Attenborough variety characterises the description of Desmond’s skin colour (“café crème, with the shadow of something darker in it. Rosewood, perhaps: close-grained, and giving off a distinctive fragrance”).
Towards the end, Desmond suffers a nasty case of UVI (urban vulpine influenza), a disease that shows “a shameless preference for people of colour”. We are invited to smile at the rhyming of “yardie” with “jihadi”. An omniscient narrator shouldn’t be cleanly equated with the author any more than a partial first-person narrator; still, it isn’t much of a leap to see Amis as the source of these obsessions.
But in Amis’s work, a setting exists not just for its polemical possibilities but to provide “opportunities to write well”, as he once put it. In the past, writing well has meant defamiliarisation: “Dusk was now falling; but the firmament was majestically bright; and the contrails of the more distant aeroplanes were like incandescent spermatozoa, sent out to fertilise the universe . . .” (Yellow Dog); “the big sky and its zoo of cumulus – its snow leopards and polar bears” (Time’s Arrow); “With a boyish flinch Keith looked up into the evening sky, whose pale pink, as usual, managed to suggest the opposite of health, like the face of a pale drinker” (London Fields). Notwithstanding all the usual pedantry and preciousness, the writing in Lionel Asbo is frequently pleasurable, at least for those with a taste for defamiliarisation. However, readers with other tastes, other needs, may not feel wholly satisfied by the unvarying regime of visual details (a stereo system “with its tiny but furious red eye”, the Serpentine “minutely runnelled by the wind, like corduroy”) whose sole aim is to prompt a response along the lines of: “Yes, it does look rather like that.”
Lionel Asbo is a contentedly throwaway piece of work, as can be deduced from the almost complete absence of reflections on physics, fascism and the waning powers of the middle-aged novelist. Yet it does offer a portrait of positive virtues, of ideal living – of human potential, as skewed by Amis. It is typical of this nuance-blind writer that, after bearing inordinately bad news for almost 40 years, he has undergone a complete reversal. (In accordance with the wider changes, the sky’s main appearance in the new novel has it looking not ill or wild or drunk, but “embarrassed” by the “adamant clarity” of the morning and “blushing an ever deeper blue”.)
As Amis’s taste in Philip Larkin has moved from “Dockery and Son” and “This Be the Verse” to “An Arundel Tomb”, so his sympathies have shifted from Dickens’s deformed wags to the nice young man and woman. Although the novel is tricked out with Dickensian characterisation, plotting and nomenclature (Squeers, Carker, Murdstone), those elements of Dickens’s world to which Charles Highway aspired now represent everything we should try to avoid.
Dickens is called upon as a writer whose dealings with the grotesque function not as an end in themselves, a source of delight, an opportunity to write well, but as a mere tool of bourgeois utopianism. The state of much of the England portrayed in Lionel Asbo may be dreadful but it is there only as a reminder of the multifarious threats posed to the “congenial” society – with its blushing skies, singing kettles, babbling babies and fawning, boring couples.
Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.