“The subtitle is there for those who want it,” Martin Amis told New York last month. And, by God, when his novel Lionel Asbo: State of England was published in the Mother Country in June, the British press took the bait. Critical of aspects of contemporary English culture, and starring a lager lout debt collector who wins £140 million on the lottery and is catapulted to stardom, Lionel Asbo triggered a kind of reflexive, nativist hostility that in part Amis must have expected.
Amis was accused of thumbing his nose at the country and at the working class by creating a “cartoonish riot of snide prole stereotypes”, “a cardboard cut-out of broken Britain”, and a “pornotheological farce” that is “persistently wrong in jarring ways.” The latter condemnation came from Theo Tait’s review in The Guardian, one which could not help but note that Lionel Asbo’s publication came “soon after Amis's departure for America.” Tait seems to insinuate for all media that it would be better if Amis never came back.
There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Lionel Asbo, as when Michiko Kakutani suggests in The New York Times that perhaps it “lacks the kinetic energy and raw, edgy poetry of Amis’ finest work.” But in England, the antagonism displayed towards Amis, and in particular the charge that he as an upper-middle class novelist displays unbelievable snobbishness, lacks nuance, and is based upon a fundamental misreading of the novel.
Allegations pertaining to cultural insensitivity have been directed at Amis before as when the British Marxist historian Terry Eagleton slammed his essay collection The Second Plane, arguing that his views on Islam and race where akin to a “British National Party thug.” But in this instance, Amis very deliberately steers away from discussing the working class at all, by creating a protagonist who is quite clearly part of what might be called the underclass. Asbo – who before his lottery win earns a crust through and does time for Extortion with Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property—lives a life contrary to normalcy and social conventions like gainful employment and respect for the rule of law. “I despair at you sometimes, Des,” Asbo says addressing his nephew. “Why aren’t you out smashing windows? It’s not healthy.”
Even though by novel’s end, Asbo certainly becomes the villain of the novel, Amis’ portrait of someone who feeds Tabasco-splashed meat to his pit bulls in order to enrage them and toughen them up is surprisingly tender. Through Asbo, Amis explores the isolation and dislocation that comes with the shattering of old bonds and the manufacture of new ones due to spectacular accession to celebrity status. Alone and out-of-sorts in one of London’s stuffier restaurants, Asbo begins to fear the repercussions of upping and leaving not just because he wants to but because of what he might read about himself in the papers the next morning, photojournalists having followed his every move since his lottery win.
In retreat to an alleyway out the back of the eatery, Asbo mutters to himself, “Might even dash off in a minute. No. They’ll think you doing a runner. Or fled in shame!” Asbo is thrown into such a depressed state by his constant harassment that he decides it would be better for him to assault a police officer and return to jail than continue his new-found lonesome lifestyle. The real baddie of Lionel Asbo is in fact the tabloid media, which elevates Asbo and exploits him, splashing him all over their front pages to boost circulation.
Fond, too, is Amis’ approach to Asbo’s mixed-race nephew, who serves as the vehicle for the moral conclusion of what in form is in fact not satire but a fairytale. Des Pepperdine is an autodidact who escapes the cycle of crime and violence that plagues Diston Town – Amis’ fictional London hood where “everything hated everything else” – by doing well in school, going to college and landing a job on the crime desk on a national newspaper. Essential to Des’ success is his loving partner Dawn and the stable family unit they fashion together with their daughter, Cilla. Amis’ plea to England (and to the United States) would seem to be that nobody is beyond redemption, no matter what their circumstance, so long as they have access to a decent education.
The central theme of the novel is one of cultural decline. The nation of Shakespeare, Milton, and Dickens (whose novels serve as a model for Lionel Asbo) is now so dismal and parochial, asserts Amis, that it has become obsessed with the most trivial of things: those whose fame derives from their very being. Banality is now the order of the day, all while the elements of the national culture Amis professes to love have been pushed to the margins.
On the one hand, the notion that English culture is in decline in toto is demonstrably untrue. After all, this year bears witness to the publication of new novels not only by Amis, but also Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, and Howard Jacobson, as well as Salman Rushdie’s memoir. Of course, the book market suffers from being saturated by piffle and filth, but has this not always been the case? Amis himself said of his father, Kingsley, that for many years he refused to read any novel that did not begin with the line, A shot rang out.
But it is certainly the case that, during the past decade, all forms of media discovered that not only is it cheaper to produce content without substance—reality television, docusoaps, celebrity game shows—but that consumers will continue to watch, read, or listen, no matter how vapid and debauched the product becomes. Journalism, particularly the English tabloid variety, was not blind to this development and has sustained itself by feeding off the main product of reality television: the over-praised ordinaries. Budgets for investigative journalism and foreign correspondence were cannibalised by the celebrity pages, their resources redirected to reporting on the lives of the inconsequential, including figures akin to Amis’ “Threnody”—Asbo’s glamour model turned poet girlfriend—and her rival Danube whose renown is totally hollow.
The phone hacking affair, rather helpfully for Amis, has only helped to strengthen this argument. After all, the real scandal was not just the hacking but who was being hacked: insignificant members of the glitterati like lads’ mag staple Abi Titmuss and Calum Best, son of the former Manchester United footballer George. Tabloids like The Sun and The Mirror have always maintained a fetish for sex, power, and money, but as Christopher Hitchens said of The News of the World—Murdoch’s Sunday red top shamed into extinction when the outrage was at its most audible—the question has become “not how low can poor human nature sink, but rather is there anything, however depraved, that a reporter cannot be induced to do”.
The English press’ unsympathetic response to Lionel Asbo in this respect, then, is understandable if not defensible, for if the final analysis stings a touch, that might just be because it has a grain of truth to it. But their reaction—surely augmented by Amis’ move to a nation he claims is perceived to be “the world HQ of arrogance and glitz”—is more than anything unfortunate, for the novel is in grave danger of being regrettably misconstrued, hoist by its provocative subtitle.