Martin Amis’s latest novel Lionel Asbo is a shallow book that sparkles with moments of profundity. The farcical content is evident from the cover of its British edition where a full-length portrait of the title character shows a muscular man in his twenties in track pant and white t-shirt, with a big bald head, bad teeth, aggressive eyes, and a pitbull on either side.
From its outset, the narrator makes no secret that the eponymous protagonist of the book is based on the shaven-headed footballer Wayne Rooney, which he is said to resemble “in certain lights and settings”. His adapted surname, Asbo, refers to Anti-Social Behavior Orders (ASBOs) introduced in Britain by New Labour in 1998; they restrict behavior like swearing or drinking alcohol.
Reading Lionel Asbo almost a year after riots shook London, I felt a sense of déjà vu. The novel employs every cliché used in the media’s portrayal of rioters. The farcical narrative makes it difficult to understand those characters who suffer from numerous forms of discrimination. Why do they behave the way they do? The media didn’t provide answers to this big question and neither does Amis. Nevertheless, amidst the shallow caricatures that fill this book, Lionel’s nephew Des emerges as a thoroughly convincing and interesting character: we care about him throughout the narrative.
Before he wins £139,999,999.50 on the National Lottery, Lionel seems to have little prospect of success in his life. As a young criminal with a long and varied history of past crimes, he is a criminologist of his own actions. “Like many career delinquents, Lionel was almost up to PhD level on questions of criminal law,” Amis writes. “Criminal law, after all, was the third element in his vocational trinity, the other two being villainy and prison.”
Lionel is an exciting criminal and one watches him with a constant sense of fascination. Amis presents him as a caricature like his mother Grace Pepperdine. Their family history is full of overblown details:
Grace had not attended all that closely to her education, for obvious reasons: she was the mother of seven children by the age of nineteen. Cilla came first. All the rest were boys: John (now a plasterer), Paul (a foreman), George (a plumber), Ringo (unemployed), and Stuart (a seedy registrar). Having run out of Beatles (including the ‘forgotten’ Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe), Grace exasperatedly christened her seventh child Lionel (after a much lesser hero, the choreographer Lionel Blair). Lionel Asbo, as he would later become, was the youngest of a very large family superintended by a single parent who was barely old enough to vote.
The Pepperdines live in Diston, a chav region that on an international chart for life expectancy, is listed between Benin and Dijibouti while its fertility rate is between Malawi and Yemen.
Enter Desmond Pepperdine. In his role as foil to all the chav figures around him, this fifteen-year-old boy turns out to be the real protagonist of the book. Des is surrounded by the harsh living conditions of Diston and is an avid reader of newspapers. In the first chapter we find him in front of his computer, struggling to write a letter to the agony aunt of the local paper, Morning Lark. So the book begins with Des’s own words:
I’m having an affair with an older woman. Shes’ a lady of some sophistication, and makes a refreshing change from the teen agers I know (like Alektra for example, or Chanel.) The sex is fantastic and I think I’m in love. But ther’es one very serious complication and i’ts this; shes’ my Gran!
An unnamed narrator quickly takes the authorial microphone from the ungrammatical Des, and the book adapts quite a different narrative tone, clearly influenced by Vladimir Nabokov, one of Amis’s favorite writers, and echoes both Lolita and Laughter in the Dark, about a middle-aged hero named Albinus who is obsessed with a younger girl who constantly cuckolds and deceives him.
Des resembles a masculine and slightly older Lolita (Dolores is twelve when we meet her), while Lionel looks like a chav version of Albinus. At the heart of the book lies the question of whether Lionel will find out about the sexual relationship between his mother (Grace) and his nephew (Des), the answer to which is constantly, comically and masterfully postponed. Like Albinus, Lionel is made a fool precisely by those in whom he places his faith.
When he wins the lottery and becomes famous, he finds himself at a loss about how to behave. He realizes he no longer needs to lift weights: “What do I need me strength for? he said out loud. Now?” He is equally cartoonish when he discovers Des reading The Faerie Queene: “Why aren’t you out smashing windows?” he says. “It’s not healthy.”
In contrast to his Shrek-like uncle, Des gradually becomes a real figure: a perfect speller, and speaker, of the English language. His reading habits improve when visiting a public library near his school, he comes across newspapers “firmly clamped to long wooden struts” waiting for scrutiny. As he takes The Sun and browses through its tabloid pages, their local newspaper Morning Lark stands “revealed for what it was — a daily lads’ mag, perfunctorily posing as a journal of record.” A poor boy’s belief in the intellectual stature of The Sun comes off as not quite condescending; Amis keeps it funny in an affectionate way.
The cover of the US version of Lionel Asbo emphasizes the centrality of tabloid newspapers and their chav discourse for the book, imitating the front page and logo of The Sun. In an interview with the Guardian, Amis made no secret of his fascination with the tabloid press and their representation of the working classes. “I have been a Sun reader for 30 years,” he confessed.
I am only interested in extremes — the one absentee from my novels is the middle class — I never write about them, I always write about the criminal class, the low-life class, and the very privileged, and I know that world and all my life I have had connections with that world.
But the Oxford-educated son of a famous father, whatever his connections to “that world”, has created a curious mixture of England’s working classes. His characters are, for the most part, affectionately observed, and the chav caricatures every bit as much patronized and looked down upon as in the tabloids themselves.