11 May 2014

Laughing and Biting Your Nails

Lionel Asbo
by Martin Amis

Martin Amis’s has been my favourite auctorial voice ever since I discovered it in my late teens. That was a very long time ago, and although I have read many great writers since then, his style has, for me, a unique appeal. In fact, I’ve had the devil’s own job to keep from unconsciously aping it in my own writing.

Lionel Asbo is sui generis, a kind of Dead Babies for the Noughties, but much better. Its eponymous central character (no hero, he) is a kind of super-chav, in his early twenties at the beginning of the book, whose motto is Never Learn. He is an unsuccessful receiver of stolen goods and a debt-collector of the intimidatory kind, constantly in and out of prison, a place he likes to be because ‘in prison you know where you are.’ He prefers porn to real women, gives his pitbulls Tabasco-sauce-drenched steaks and Special Brew hangovers to make them even more ferocious, and enjoys beating the living shit out of people. He has a nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, who, unbeknownst to him, is having sex with his — Lionel's — mother Grace. Yes, that’s right: Desmond is having sex with his own grandmother (and writing to an agony aunt for advice about it).

In spite of this little peccadillo, Desmond is the actual hero of Lionel Asbo, a lad of mixed race and no prospects who is nevertheless trying to make the best of the terrible cards Fate has dealt him. He manages to get a place at university, earns his degree, falls in love with a girl of similar background and outlook, gets married and gets a job as a journalist, has a baby. None of this meets with the approval of Lionel, who has been taking care of Desmond (his method being a mixture of affectionate bullying and benign neglect) ever since his mother, Lionel’s sister Cilla, died, and who is disappointed at such genteel aspirations in a nephew.

Grace, incidentally, is thirty-nine years old, more or less wrecked and not long for this world. These people all live in a hideous tower-block town called Diston, which is a blighted vertical slum where girls get pregnant at age twelve and people rarely live to see their fiftieth year.

One day, while in jail, Lionel discovers that he has won a huge sum of money in a lottery. Over the next few years, he becomes a media celebrity, Lionel the Lotto Lout, living out the life of his proletarian, scopeless fantasies. Meanwhile, Desmond is making his way in the world with considerable struggle, terrified all the while that Lionel will find out about his fling with Grace and have his pitbulls tear him limb from limb.

Desmond survives to the end of the book, but not without all sorts of other horrifically, hysterically funny things happening: some to him, some to other people, but most to Lionel. Like certain other works in the oeuvre of Martin Amis, such as Money and Dead Babies, this is a book your read while simultaneously gasping with shock and howling with laughter. The ending is masterly — Amis generates almost unbearable tension out of the most mundane elements, an absolutely bravura performance. Literary novelists are often unreliable plotters, but the plot of Lionel Asbo is as brilliantly executed as the set-pieces. After a series of recent disappointments, this is the vintage Mart, uncorked yet again. Have a drink with me.

A Man in Full

Wolf Hall
By Hilary Mantel

At the front of Wolf Hall is a list of characters. There are fifty of them. By the time I’d finished the book, every one, even the most minor, had a distinct face and personality. Although the action is narrated exclusively from the principal character’s point of view and we are always privy to his thoughts, we are nonetheless enabled to form our own opinions of all the characters. These may not always agree with Cromwell's view of them — or even, perhaps, the author’s. 

That is literary mastery of a very high order.

Of course, the principal characters in this story are well known to us. Biographies and contemporary portraits of 
Henry VIII of England, Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragorn, Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More all exist and are familiar to many people, particularly in the UK, from their history schoolbooks. But the virtue of Mantel’s writing is that she disposes of our preconceptions regarding these famous actors on history’s stage and turns them into real, complex, conflicted people.

The story rattles along at breakneck speed. Though it is all history (there are times when Mantel even tells you what letters Cromwell wrote, and to whom, on a particular night, and you can bet your life those letters really were written, and still exist somewhere), she manages to create tension, suspense and instants of surprise and revelation despite the reader’s foreknowledge of the course of events (though it is probably not advisable to look up the history of the period in too much detail while reading the book).

Period and place are brought to life in loving, often gritty detail. As for the historical and political context, I don't think any author could have managed it better. Frankly, I don't see how I can praise this book highly enough.

Flying in His Underpants

Biggles Fails to Return
By Capt. W.E. Johns

It is 1942, and Biggles has vanished on a secret mission in Monaco. Algy, Ginger and Bertie set off to look for him, but without the boss to keep them in line they soon go off the rails, strumming guitars, swilling wine and dallying, believe it or not, with women. Ginger falls in love with a girl who gives him shelter, while Algy stalks a woman in a blue shawl for miles and miles. Bertie reveals unsuspected musical abilities as well as an entirely believable familiarity with pre-war Monegasque society. All seems lost, but then Biggles appears, reminds them of what they’ve been missing by doing some ace flying in his underpants, all wet and hunky, and they return to England firm friends again. Really, really firm friends.

Oh, all right. The four stars are contextual, of course, but this really is one of the best Biggles books. There are the usual implausible coincidences, impossibly lucky escapes and a positive Olympus of deorum ex machina, but it also contains affectionate and knowledgeable descriptions of Monaco and the surrounding Alpes Maritimes (Johns was always at his best as a writer when describing scenery, particularly desolate places) and yes, there are actually women participating in the story as characters. The French setting seems to have obliged Biggles and crew to deviate from their usual Muscular Christian l code of conduct. I loved the Biggles books as a small boy and wanted to see how they held up when read as an adult. Mostly they don’t, but I actually enjoyed this one more than I did as a child.