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Review: Lionel Asbo, State of England

The linguistic acrobatics is coupled with a deepening compassion in the latest Martin Amis novel

books Updated: Jul 13, 2012 17:15 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya, Hindustan Times

Lionel Asbo: State of England

Martin Amis

Jonathan cape

Rs 499 pp 276

As I waited for my copy of Martin Amis’s new novel to turn up, I decided to reacquaint myself (and to acquaint or reacquaint you, dear reader) with some sentences and phrases that could only have had Amis’s imprimatur.

I went back to the opening pages of Money (1984) and London Fields (1989) — two of Amis’s definitive contributions to the canon of literature in English from the second half of the 20th century. The following — selected at random — are merely from the opening pages of the two novels. And they are merely a few of the ones that are there in those pages. So:

“The lights don’t seem at all fixed or stable, up there in the banked sky...”

“The sprung doors parted and I staggered out into the lobby’s teak and flicker.”

“I was loaded [drunk] enough to be unable to tell whether they could tell that I was loaded.”

“The lift sucked me skyward.”

“The distant fizz or whistle or hiss in the back of my head is starting again, modulating slowly, searching for its scale.”

“My memory is in good shape, I think. It’s just that my life is getting less memorable all the time.”

“It reeked of sleep. Somnopolis. It reeked of it, and of insomniac worry and disquiet, and thwarted escape.”

“… the layered insult of dawn rain.”

“… the house — and the house massive, like an ancient terminal.”

“And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look, and feel, like shit.”

“A wooden bench where old-timers sometimes sit and seem to flicker in the wind.”

This is the sort of stuff for which one reads Amis. The incantatory rhythms, the linguistic pyrotechnics that light up the pages, the fabulously fabulated comic hyperbole. The high style (no, the High Style) forged at the altar of the holy trinity — Joyce, Bellow and Nabokov — and married to the demotic and the street cred of low life.

In an interview with Paris Review in 1998, Amis had spoken of how “story, plot, characterisation” were, for him, “secondary interests”. What mattered to him was voice:

“I think that novels are about the author’s voice… What gives the voice its own timbre and its own resonance is what interests me, and that is always there, right from the start.” And the writer’s voice is his style: “It’s all he’s got. It’s not the flashy twist, the abrupt climax, or the seamless sequence of events that characterises a writer and makes him unique. It’s a tone, it’s a way of looking at things.

This voice — ferociously original, having spawned a generation of imitators but no equals — is one of the chief reasons for reading Amis. And here it comes, unmistakable, no sooner than the new novel has opened: “Diston, with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy, low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste. Diston — a world of italics and exclamation marks.”

It has, for some years now, been fashionable in certain circles to diss Amis, to groan at the verbal excesses, and suggest that he has become a parody of himself. But the excesses are the point of Amis. To complain about them is akin to ordering caviar and asking for it to be light on the roe.

Ever since mid-career, Amis has always been preoccupied with the big themes: the free market, rapaciousness and philistinism (Money); nuclear weapons (Time’s Arrow); Stalin’s concentration camps (The House of Meetings); and the sexual revolution (The Pregnant Widow). So what does he have a go at in Lionel Asbo? The subtitle gives it away: the state of England.

Set in the imaginary London neighbourhood of Diston, the novel is an appalled, clinical evisceration of the state of the country Amis has now left to make a home in New York. Lionel Asbo — the man who lends the novel its title — is a resolutely loutish, wantonly violent thug who works in the “hairiest end of debt collection”. One day, while in prison (and prison is Asbo’s home away from home), he learns that he has won the lottery and become a millionaire many times over.

How this wealth comes to shape Asbo’s life, and of those around him forms the ammunition with which Amis unleashes his barrage of fire on the state of England. Running alongside this is a subplot of illicit sex and betrayal, which offers some of the most suspenseful and well-executed set pieces in the novel.

And the voice is on song: “He heard a snatch, a twist, of weak birdsong; slowly the city heaved into life.”

“…crunching on a snowfield of shattered glass.”

“The diners were dining, hypernormally. The soft echoes and vibrations, the pings and chimes, of tableware, the drones and murmurs of polite conversation.”

If you aren’t an Amis fan, Lionel Asbo may not be the best book for you to get into him. It has neither the ambitiousness and formal ingenuity of Money and London Fields, nor the flat-out, irony-dripping, scabrous satire of his early work (The Rachel Papers, Success, Dead Babies). In parts, especially in the closing sections, we discover that the tone of compassion and humanity evinced in The House of Meetings and The Pregnant Widow has deepened. It also reveals that while having mellowed, The Voice has no less melody.

First Published: Jul 13, 2012 17:15 IST