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.

No comments:

Post a Comment