Martin Amis once remarked that reviewing a work of literary art is outré because one is bound to use the reviewee’s weapon of choice – the written word. What follows is that there may or even must be jealously, insecurity and hostility attached to the process. This must be reasonably precise for novelists reviewing novels of their contemporaries, but I am not a novelist, and non-fiction writing is very distinct from the process of creating fiction. The use of language remains, and it may be a source of friction, but I embark on this literary journey with full appreciation of Mr. Amis’s command of the English language. That could still leave me in a position of jealousy, but since no alternative to this approach has been proposed the reader will have to be aware of this danger while reading the succeeding critique.
The reader could easily be fooled by the title, or Jonathan Cape’s press notes, but this novel is not about Lionel Asbo, a violent criminal struck by unmerited luck (when is luck ever merited?), and while it is to a greater extent about his nephew, Des Pepperdine, or at least about the relations and differences between the two, it’s not about Desmond either. As every Martin Amis’s book it has a point or a main thread, and Lionel Asbo talks about the state of England (as the subtitle would have us believe). But that won’t quite do, either. It’s not England, not just England, even if England makes the best example (or second best after the USA) and is the closest to Mr. Amis’s heart. The novel is about how society differentiates between people. Winning millions on the National Lottery is palpably a coarse example, but it serves as a placeholder for all that modern society, through TV shows and tabloid newspapers, uses to elevate personalities such as Lionel Asbo — blank characters.
While reading the novel one has a feeling that Mr. Amis has not introduced Des just to showcase the difference between him and his uncle, but that he needed Desmond not to drown in Lionel’s sketchy language. Martin Amis famously and controversially said: “If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book” and added: “I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.” One could argue that Mr. Amis could do with the narrator’s voice, but a narrator is always somewhat passive, and I would argue that Desmond is Martin Amis’s way to free his voice in an active manner.
For the readers who find joy and excitement in contemplating the language itself there is much to be offered by this novel. Mr. Amis did not lose any of the force or finesse of his language, so brilliantly used in his twelve previous novels. Sentences such as “But the tombstones were not tombstones: they were cropped trees, very old, and all caught in different attitudes of huddled infirmity.” make the novel worth the asking price and the time spent on reading it on their own. And there is much to be said about the voice of Lionel Asbo too, even if it is, in a sense, the opposite of the above. His English is not pure, but it has plenty of power, and will have a lasting impression.
Lionel Asbo reeks of autobiographical roots. Desmond’s letters, and the evolution of them and the language used in them, remind us of the author’s letters published in Experience. The press fighting for vacuous information, aggressively and unrelentingly, call to mind Mr. Amis’s many adventures with the press who were often not interested in his literary work and instead in the inane (teeth, advances). The novel contains the famous phrase used by Mr. Amis to describe Salman Rushdie, who during his fatwah years, “disappeared into the front page.” But that’s wrong, Lionel Asbo did not disappear into the front page, as there was no personality to disappear in the first place.
“It’s young Des Pepperdine who’s achieved something good in this life. It’s young Des Pepperdine who’s ‘come good’. Not Lionel Asbo.” These words sum up the point of the novel. The modern society loves to create celebrities whose achievements are non-existent, loves to feed on the vacuous or non-existent virtues. The meaningful merits go unnoticed, leading the culture into a road at the end of which vacuousness is not only the virtue, but also the means and the end.
“Writers die twice,” wrote Martin Amis recently, “once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.” His talent hasn’t yet died. But the reader feels that the fear of it happening made the author softer, less bold than he should have been. Lionel Asbo is not for Martin Amis what The Old Devils is to Kinsley Amis, who was 64 when he published the novel which won the Booker Prize. Martin Amis is now 62, and this book, despite being a thoroughly enjoyable story, and yet another place in which to marvel at Mr. Amis’s impeccable English, will not win the Booker this year. But as the talent is not dead we’re waiting for yet another novel, soon.