Martin Amis’s writing has always been vicious. It doesn’t matter if it’s been a gruesome book on Holocaust or a comical short story about sex addiction, Amis’s wit is essentially brutal. A quick glance at the cover art of Lionel Asbo will no doubt tell you that the book is as well versed in violence as his breakthrough novel Money, a reference point not entirely random.
Indeed: Lionel Asbo: State Of England is Amis at his most ruthless. It’s him delving his teeth into the modern England, exposing its vices and then pissing all over them with his trademark style. The prospect, you have to admit, is irresistible.
Amis had a short story titled “State Of England” back in the 80’s, so you would think he’d been coming round to Lionel Asbo for quite some time. However, the end result feels almost effortless: of all well-established writers who came to prominence 30 or even 40 years ago (it’s exactly 40 years since the publication of The Rachel Papers), Martin Amis is the one you would entrust with the heartless task of tackling the modern times. Or, to be more precise, State Of England.
Which is a pretty sorry state to say the least.
The setting is contemporary London, specifically a God-forsaken borough called Diston Town, and Lionel Asbo is a 20-something thug who, if struck with the choice whom to strangle, you or one of his two dogs, would unblinkingly pick you. He also happens to be the uncle of Dennis Pepperdine, a 15-year old teenager who is rather sensitive and of mixed race. The two live together, and while the narrative is exhilarating from page one (Dennis’s confessional letter is pure comical genius), it is all just a clever setup for the moment Lionel wins an absolutely outrageous sum of money on the National Lottery. Initially it’s lush and disfigured, then it predictably hits the inevitable tits-up stride: Amis in full swing. The swing including violence (“the muscular violence that lies coiled in clouds”), sex (“straightforward copulation: this is what happens when a zoo rapes an aquarium”), money (but of course) and all those things he’s been writing about all along. Amis's comfort zone is a scary place.
As for the style, it’s nothing new: Martin Amis always writes like Martin Amis. It is mostly punishing hardcore this time, but he does it with witty and intelligent aplomb only he can muster. He is full of unexpected similes and singular metaphors, and he also has an almost sloppy way with that erudite brand of the English language – yet he is always convincing and never fails to entertain. You feel he actually enjoys writing about it all, that raunchy and gruesome world where cruelty is a pastime, and the inimitable way in which he can take this world apart and then assemble into an art form. All elements are in place, including that big dramatic moment towards the end, where Amis gives it away – about the Lionels and the rest, in the way of Dennis’s biggest life lesson: “They can’t love – hell, they can’t even be loved”.
Make nо mistake: Lionel Asbo is nothing more than a Martin Amis novel. And, crucially, nothing less. So if, like me, you think Amis is the sort of writer who gives postmodernism a good name, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t consider his latest a modern classic. It has drive and urgency to it, and, for once, its comical brutality rings disgustingly true. Vicious and viciously good.
And to further emphasise how highly I rate Lionel Asbo, this is the full list of Amis’s novels marked Vonnegut style:
The Rachel Papers (1973) B-plus
Dead Babies (1975) B-plus
Success (1978) B
Other People (1981) A-minus
Money (1984) A-plus
London Fields (1989) A-plus
Time’s Arrow (1991) A
The Information (1995) A-plus
Night Train (1997) A-minus
Yellow Dog (2003) D
House Of Meetings (2006) B-plus
The Pregnant Widow (2010) A
Lionel Asbo (2012) A