Amis Asbo Special
The promotional tour for Lionel Asbo: State of England has been suspiciously quiet. The fact that Martin Amis hasn’t sworn, bitched or nominated the queen as guinea pig for euthanasia booths stirred the press into feverish levels of anticipation. Had the OAP (Old Age Provocateur) finally lost his teeth? Or was he simply biding his time before biting back?
The satire on Lionel Asbo – Wayne Rooney look-alike and dedicated chav – and his lottery win seems written to offend … even without subplots involving teenage pregnancy (she “was six months gone when she sat her Eleven Plus”), incest with a thirty-something year old granny, pit bulls and acid attacks.
As a loyal Amis disciple, Nicola Barker in the Observer, relished the un-PC premise: ‘Is it – as nay-sayers believe – a savage, uncontrolled and splenetic attack on modern British life, culture, mores and tropes? Is it a casual bit of GBH against the working classes?’ And she wasn’t disappointed, praising Lionel Asbo as offensive but delicious, a ‘big mac made from filet mignon’, at once ‘clever and ignorant and topical and sad and cruel and ridiculous and breathtaking’.
Despite initial trepidation, Carol Midgley in the Times (£) hailed it as a blistering return to form:
It certainly has much of the dazzling prose that made his earlier works so stand-out. As ever he makes the dreadful funny, the grotesque poetic. But there’s something else, a tenderness and humanity that may stem from age and his status not just as a father but now a grandfather. Few write about babies as movingly as Amis.
But the verbal brio and the goo-goo ga-ga weren’t enough for Amanda Craig in theIndependent . The novel might be modelled on Hard Times but Craig thought it ‘far removed from Dickensian compassion.’ Amis may have said he was aiming to make Lionel a ‘metaphor’ for ‘moral decrepitude’ but Craig likened his attack on a ‘cartoon of a chav’ to ‘shooting fish in a barrel’.
In the FT, Lionel Shriver also judged his send-up of the working class predictable concluding with the damning indictment ‘worst of all, for its whole last half, this novel just isn’t funny.’ Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times wasn’t impressed either: ‘the verbal dazzle… has by now dimmed into near nonexistence.’ He also thought Amis’s main gripe – that talent is no longer a requisite for success – a little hard to swallow given the novel, ‘his latest work of the mind, hardly constitutes compelling support for this indignation’.
D.J Taylor – although determined not to ‘shit on people who had given you pleasure’ – had to admit in his Independent on Sunday review that Amis was ‘showing his age.’ He noted that the state of England Amis satirises is
… rife with glimpses of teenagers taking their “O levels” (an exam abolished in 1988), sitting their 11-Plus (an impossibility in “Diston”) and knocking up “four distinctions” in their A Levels.’ In the Observer, Theo Tait also noticed details ‘persistently wrong in jarring ways’ and counselled Amis to have ‘a nice lie down in a darkened room.
The slight disconnect – due perhaps to the author’s recent defection to the US – with British society didn’t bother David Sexton at all. In a full-page review in the Evening Standard , he raved: ‘it’s to be enjoyed in the same spirit as Little Britain (Lionel Asbo could be Vicky Pollard’s fearsome older brother).’
Sexton echoed the feeling of relief which prevailed throughout the reviews, and welcomed an old friend back into the fold:
Lionel Asbo is the first Martin Amis novel for a long time to come out of his natural vein for rough farce, the scabrous exposure of human grossness. At last, here is some more fiction by him that doesn’t assert its ultimate seriousness by tackling such themes as the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, Stalinism, or the vastness of interstellar space but instead goes in shamelessly for the low blow, hitting these barn-door-sized targets hard.
In other words, Sexton concluded, Lionel Asbo is ‘a hoot’.
This article first appeared on the Spectator books blog.