There is a section in Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo: State of England where the eponymous antihero relates to his nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, his unsuccessful foray into reading a bit of history: ‘After a page or two I keep thinking the book’s taking the piss. Oy. You taking the piss?’ It is a fitting meta-fictional allusion to the comical satire that characterises Amis’s book. Amis does take the piss, with outlandish pizazz, out of the state of wealth inequality in England, the tension between the classes and tabloid media.
The book is set between 2006 and 2012, mostly in Diston, a fictional place on the outskirts of London, which has demographical statistics on par with third-world countries: the average life expectancy, we are informed, is fifty-four for men and fifty-seven for women and the fertility rate is six children per couple or single mother (which falls between Malawi and Yemen, we are told). As one would expect, teenage pregnancy is rife. Desmond (Des, Desi), whose mother died when he was twelve, has since been ‘raised’ by Lionel, who although is his uncle, is only six years his senior. Lionel is the youngest of Grace Pepperdine’s children; Cilla, Des’s mother, was the eldest. Ordinarily shocking facts are revealed with commonplace bluntness: Grace had Cilla when she was twelve, the same age Cilla was when she gave birth to Des; and Grace’s seven children are borne of six different fathers.
In the opening paragraph of the novel, we learn that Des, aged fifteen, and Grace, aged thirty-nine, have recently begun having sexual relations, the morality and legality of which Des seeks to reassure himself about by writing to Daphne, The Sun’s resident agony aunt. Horrified to discover that incest is illegal, young Des’s woes are compounded by the fear that Lionel – criminally violent and pathologically quick to anger – will find out. Fortunately for Des, the affair soon ends and he is spared the fate of another schoolboy Lionel discovers Grace has also been bunking up with: the boy disappears entirely. When questioned by Des, Lionel responds, ‘“I didn’t kill him. I sold him.”’
Lionel’s character is not alluring so much as entertaining it its vulgarity. His first run-in with the law – for smashing car windscreens with paving stones – occurred at the age of three. At age eighteen, he changed his surname by deed poll to ASBO, standing for the Anti-Social Behaviour Order made against him at age three (a national record). Up until 2009, while he still works, his trade involves two ‘psychopathic’ pitbulls and legally dubious ‘selling on’. His motto is to ‘never learn’, which explains his repeated bouts of incarceration, the most absurd series of which occurs between 2006 and 2009:
Lionel Asbo served five prison terms, two months for Receiving Stolen Property, two months for Extortion With Menaces, two months for Receiving Stolen Property, two months for Extortion with Menaces, and two months for Receiving Stolen Property.
To be repeatedly imprisoned for the same offences, as Des remarks, requires giving ‘being stupid a lot of very intelligent thought.’ The effect of such comical obstinacy is to call into question the troubling issue of real repeat offenders, for whom the prison gates seem to be revolving ones.
Lionel’s life changes when he wins £140 million in the lottery, which instantly turns him into a perennial tabloid feature. His wealth unwillingly unmoors him from his past life in the lower class. On his first day in the fictional Pantheon Grand Hotel, the ‘dearest’ place in London, he feels like ‘an astronaut, weightless, without connection, swimming in air’. Lionel – ghastly a man as he is – experiences an almost pitiable inner turmoil about the incongruity of his roots and present wealth. Despite the fact that Lionel now possesses a fortune that plants him squarely in the top one percent, not to mention investments that have ‘prospered almost uncontrollably right from the start’, his tastes and elocution betray him. He still pronounces his ths as ffs (hypothesis is hypoffesis, wrath is roff, and so on), talks and writes with glottal stops (computer is cumpew uh) and reads daily his Morning Lark, a lads’ mag consisting mainly of topless girls and other such reputable features as GILFs (MILFs but grandmothers). He senses acutely that he doesn’t truly belong to the world of the rich, for the inhabitants of which it seems – incredulously – to be ‘halfway normal’ to live until eighty. For comparison, there is the farcically premature and poignant decline of Grace Pepperdine, whose degenerating mental state prompts Lionel to institutionalize her in Scotland. In response to her protests, Lionel exclaims, ‘“Woman – you forty-two. You can’t fight the march of time!”’ Lionel feels what a tabloid reporter (the same agony aunt, Daphne, no less) derides as a ‘violent insecurity’ about his alien status, experiencing for the first time ‘something like an unexamined fear of derision’ by well-rooted members of the upper echelons.
What makes Lionel interesting is the unexpected care he shows for Des. Taking a preteen under one’s wing is no small matter, especially if the carer himself is only eighteen. Lionel has taught Des how to drive, buys him his first mobile phone and in the pre-lottery days treats him to feasts of KFC. At his high school, Squeers Free, where he would otherwise be a prime target, Des is rendered inviolable by the fact of his relation to Lionel: it helps that once a term, Lionel drops off and picks the boy up, accompanied by the pitbulls. Des loves his uncle ‘deeply and more or less unquestioningly’, despite the fact that he feels ‘slightly ill in his presence.’ The unresolved tension that underlies their relationship is, of course, the unknown matter relating to Grace.
The younger Des is bafflingly precocious (at age seven, he already knew he was ‘not religious’) yet a hopeless punctuator (the first confessional letter he pens features such gems as ‘ther’es’ and ‘i’ts’, both of which I am yet to see used by the worst illiterates on the Internet). Despite the odds – being an orphan and living alone during Lionel’s many prison stints – Des does well academically and gets accepted into university. A gentle soul and a self-professed romantic from the age of 15, he falls in love with a young woman named Dawn Sheringham. Their narrative is the novel’s only that is conveyed without irony or mockery.
Many passages in Amis’s novel read like scenes in a farce. There is a family reunion wedding that ends with forty-two imprisonments; a trilogy of pitbull pairs with names starting with J; and repeated issues with an industrial bin that either stays open or closed for weeks on end, prompting Lionel to alternately accuse Des of being the culprit and sitting on its lid, and demand that he sit on it. The novel’s denouement, deftly plotted, is a wonderful collision of the absurdity and humour of Amis’s writing.
by Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, 2012