Lionel Asbo – Review

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.


Lionel Asbo

by Martin Amis

Jonathan Cape, 2012


Let the Great World Spin – Review

On August 7, 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit stepped out onto a 200kg wire cable suspended over 400 metres above street level, stretched between the tops of the recently built Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, a 25kg custom-made balancing pole in his hands. During his tightrope walk that lasted three quarters of an hour, his co-conspirators watched him run, lay down flat on the wire, and kneel and salute, making eight passes in total. Around him rang out the siren song of the New York City Fire Department, the thuk-thuk-thuk of helicopters, the appeals and threats from police on the rooftops of both towers, and the cheers of onlookers.

This historical event forms the nucleus of Colum McCann’s fictional 2009 book, Let the Great World Spin. In the great city that hummed and whirred by the shadow of its Twin Towers, McCann’s novel interlinks the diverse lives of its characters. Each chapter is a slice of life taken through the eyes of a different person; as in life, varying perspectives co-exist in mutual opposition.

In an interview last year with Irish author, Catherine Dunne, McCann discussed his belief in the ‘democracy of storytelling’, his conviction

That stories can cross all sorts of borders and boundaries. I don’t know of a greater privilege than being allowed to tell a story or to listen to a story. They’re the only thing we have that can trump life itself.

McCann’s pluralistic ethos strikingly characterises Let the Great World Spin. The book gives a voice to the traditionally voiceless, those who have been pushed to the fringes of society, be it by race, gender or circumstance. Take, for example, Gloria, an African-American twice-divorced mother of three dead Vietnam veterans; or Adelita, an immigrant, nurse and widowed mother of two whose medical studies were arrested by war in Guatemala. Particularly moving is the account of Tillie Henderson, a 38-year-old grandmother and streetwalker, a poignant example of the vicious cycle of drug abuse, prostitution and poverty. Then there are those sympathetic to their plight: John Corrigan, an ascetic Irish monk, – known to all, including his brother Ciaran, simply as Corrigan – called to serve in the Bronx, who looks out for Tillie and the other prostitutes; and Claire, a grieving well-to-do Park Avenue housewife who meets Gloria through a gathering of veterans’ mothers. The book is a profound testament to the fundamental human desire to share, communicate and connect with others. Gloria, during one of the mothers’ meetings, reflects:

Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.

The effect of the democratic structure of the book is a wonderfully realistic rendering of the city it is set in. The diversity of background, history, race and outlook present in McCann’s novel is what also characterises New York City, in all its clamorous, frenetic, gritty splendour. Writing a book with as many developed characters as feature in Let the Great World Spin would be an ambitious and impressive feat in itself, even without McCann’s deft interweaving of stories. The lives of its characters converge gradually, puzzle piece by puzzle piece slowly assembled to create an intact rendering of both New York and the novel as a whole. Claire, the Upper East Side housewife, desperately needs someone with whom she can vocalise and share her grief, and so becomes attached to Gloria, who lives in the projects in the Bronx, near the underpass where Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn prostitute themselves, who use Corrigan’s bare apartment as a tinkling spot, and so on.

The connections, although distinct, are convincing rather than contrived (in the latter category, for example, would fall the comet-shaped birthmark all the focal characters are blemished by in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). They are fictional manifestations of the real findings of the small-world experiment, which reminds us that despite our highly prized individual autonomy, we are far more interconnected than we realise. The well-known study, authored by Jeffrey Travers and Stanley Milgrim, concluded that the average path of communication between two arbitrary people in the United States was less than six intermediaries, which undoubtedly has contributed to the popularity of the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory. (Randomly selected people in Boston and Nebraska were asked to send a letter to a target recipient in Massachusetts. The average path length was 4.4 intermediaries from Boston and 5.7 from Nebraska.) But the connections created in Let the Great World Spin cannot begin to be approximated by data. McCann depicts them with such insight and humanity that they are unreal, in the sense that they are fictitious, and yet simultaneously hyper-real: fortuitous, uncanny and unexpected in the way that life is. And where better of a place for them to surface than in the density of the Big Apple? Gloria becomes keenly aware of this:

It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.

There are peripheral links in addition to the major narrative nexuses. One chapter is focalised through a 14-year-old amateur photographer who shoots photos of underground graffiti. Similar, although brief, descriptions pre-empt his story in the accounts of Ciaran – John Corrigan’s brother and a new New Yorker – and Claire, the housewife. Blink and you’ll miss it. In one of the book’s few awkward exchanges, one of the Corrigan brothers declares to the other, rather too forthrightly, that every night he dreams about a woman (whose name I will omit for the sake of not ‘spoiling the plot’), in which he is ‘“running [his]… lips down along her spine, like a skiff down a river.”’An hour and a half north of the city, in a cabin in upstate New York, Lara Liveman, a 28-year-old visual artist, lies on her stomach as her husband, Blaine, sprinkles cocaine in the hollow of her back. These are subtle reminders of the relationships we have with others even in the ignorance of their existence.

The centrepiece of the book, to which all its narratives are connected, is the tightrope walk. Petit spent six years planning and preparing for the feat, and in the lead-up staged walks across the northern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge as well as the towers of the Notre Dame. A photograph of his World Trade Centre walk is included in McCann’s book: Petit an inkblot between the towers, a large commercial jet in the top left corner. Both transfixing and ominous, it is a visual equivalent of the presentiment of disaster in E.B. White’s fantastic 1949 essay, ‘Here is New York’:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate millions.

In the final section of the book, set three decades years after the walk, a young female character reflects upon the image:

A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.

Two crimes: one dubbed ‘the artistic crime of the century’, that brought the Twin Towers widespread appeal and attention; and another that would later destroy them. The responses to witnessing Petit’s walk, of both real spectators and McCann’s characters, parallel eyewitness accounts of watching the planes collide with the towers in 2001: there is a common strand of disbelief, of the surreal.

Also shared is the simultaneous dread and anticipation of the fall. In the opening section of Let the Great World Spin, McCann describes the onlookers:

…many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said, they really wanted to witness a great fall, see someone arc downward all that distance, to disappear from the sight line, flail, smash to the ground…

Who can forget the tragic images that emerged during 9/11 of people trapped in the floors above the collisions, their heads out of windows, some waving white. And then there was the heart-rending footage of those who jumped, their bodies floating downwards to oblivion. The Falling Man.

September 11 was, as the tightrope walk is in McCann’s novel, ‘the collision point of stories.’ A senseless act of terrorism wreaked destruction of terrible beauty, from which emerged so many interlinked stories of grief, of sacrifice, of courage and of the fortitude of the human spirit.


Let the Great World Spin

by Colum McCann

Bloomsbury, 2009