Lional Asbo: State of England is the first book I've read by Martin Amis. I don't think it will be the last, though it's hard to imagine a novel, or a writer, so lathered in its satire that often you can't tell what's going on…or decide whether anyone who lives as comfortable a life in England as Martin Amis has any right to write such devastating prose about the English who aren't his kind of English anymore.
The gist of the book is this: In a violent corner of London there's a neighborhood called Diston Town. Bad things happen there by the minute. One perpetrator of bad things is Lionel Asbo (self-named for Great Britain's Anti-social Behavior Order, a law that is a form ostracism). He has a nephew who, in the weakness a fifteen year old might display, takes to plunking (or chose your own verb) his grandmother, who is also Lionel's mother. But the nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, a modern day Pip, is really as good and hopeful a young man as Dicken's original in Great Expectations.
So we cheer from Desmond as he hopes Lionel won't discover that he spent some time plunking Grace, the gran, and as he finds his true love, a lass named Dawn, and eventually they marry and give birth to Cilla, a mixture of black (Desmond's basic color) and white (Dawn's color).
The complication comes when Lionel, who has spent much of his life in jail--and continues to do so off and on--wins 140 million pounds in the lottery. With this Lionel is empowered, confused, belittled, thrilled and as anti-social as ever. He becomes a national buffoon whose P.R. firm gradually transforms him into something a little less awful than he is.
How awful is he? Well, this is a satire, and satires are supposed to be amusing, and some of the ghastly things Lionel is responsible for do have their moments of infantile glee. Further, he naturally becomes a personage (money will do that for you) and he actually experiences some growing pains, aided and abetted by the women in his life and bitter, backfiring experience full of indignities a man as rich as he ought not to suffer.
In one sense, this novel is an exploration of all the rot and ruin the U.K. has become through immigration and benighted social policy and too many bad drugs floating around. That's where the subtitle comes in: State of England.
In another sense, this novel is a Great Expectations upside down, Magwitch's triumph, and a screed more compressed and just as funny as Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. Every few paragraphs Amis will write a beautiful sentence just to remind you he's awfully good at describing sunsets and mornings and fogs. Most of the time, he writes in the dead-on argot of Diston Town, employing every conceivable misbegotten term for misbegotten people and events.
Lionel Asbo the novel, to its credit, doesn't make too much of drugs. Lionel Asbo the character likes alcohol and violence more. He also acquires a late-in-life taste for actual sex over porn, which he finds just as effective and cheaper, less complicated.
If you want England as it once was--in our imaginations, at least--there's Downton Abbey. If you want a send-up of England as it often is in 2013, there's Lionel Asbo-State of England. Neither is the "real" England, although Martin Amis's work may take us a great deal closer to what life is like in the endless stretches of metropolitan London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and the like.
This is a pungent book, not for everyone, but whether you find it appalling or dazzling, it would be difficult to argue that Amis didn't land his punch where he aimed it.
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