I haven’t enjoyed a novel by Martin Amis so much since his 1995 work The Information. His newest book, Lionel Asbo: State of England, is as darkly comic as its predecessor with a similarly Odyssey-like plot. The protagonist has committed a crime—though in the case of the writer in The Information his crime was an ambiguously attempted infidelity and in Lionel Asbo, it is a real crime, or at least the breaking of a taboo—and then has to attempt to redeem himself. The novels also have in common a villain of epic proportions, a villain, in both cases, who is addicted to pornography and crime, and who was deprived of a decent childhood. And both books are also about the conception, birthing, raising, and protecting of children.
In The Information, the protagonist is a writer down on his luck in work and marriage. His two boys redeem his life in a way—at least he has had them!—and he saves them from being abducted at the end, which, he realizes, matters more than his writing or his marriage. It reminds me of the story about James Joyce, of how a friend of his was taken aback by Joyce’s delight in having another grandchild come into the world. When the friend protested that this was egotistical, Joyce said, “It’s the most important thing in the world.” The friend misunderstood Joyce as thinking it was important that another Joyce was in the world, but Joyce was talking about the begetting of children itself as more important than art—or anything else for that matter.
Amis revisits this theme in Lionel Asbo. Most of the novel is set in the fictional neighborhood of Diston, which is bursting with children, as no one seems to use, or know anything about, contraception, and not because they are devout Roman Catholics clutching copies of Humanae Vitae. Desmond Pepperdine, the novel’s protagonist, more often referred to as Des, is a mulatto whose grandmother Grace “was the mother of seven children by the age of nineteen.” Des commits the crime of letting himself be seduced at the age of fifteen by his thirty-nine-year-old, drunken grandmother. His own mother, Cilla, had died when he was twelve and he was taken in by his uncle Lionel since Des’s father, like almost all of the fathers in this novel, was never around. Once, Des and Cilla saw a black man passed out from drink on a park bench, and Cilla could not even get him to wake up. That was the only time that Des had seen his father.
Now Lionel, Grace’s youngest son, and Des’s uncle, is, as they say, a piece of work. “He was served his first restraining order when he was three,” the narrator tells us, and had his last name of Pepperdine changed to Asbo. The acronym “(as all the kingdom knew) stood for Anti-Social Behaviour Disorder.” Lionel tries to teach Des how to become a decent lawbreaking denizen of Diston and wonders why he doesn’t go out with the other boys to smash windows. “It’s not healthy,” Lionel laments; but Des has something else, or someone else on his mind:
For six or seven months now he had been sensing it: the pangs and quickenings of intelligence within his being. Cilla, Des’s mother, died when he was twelve, and for three years he entered a kind of trance, a leaden sleep; all was numb and Mumless . . . Then he woke up.
He started keeping a diary—and a notebook. There was a voice in his head, and he listened to it and he talked to it. No, he communed with it, he communed with the whispers of his intelligence. Did everybody have one, an inner voice? He thought probably not. Then where did it come from?
Perhaps it came from Grace, he concludes, who is a whiz at a kind of crossword called Cryptic; more likely it came from his mother, who was, as Lionel says, “bright as a barrelful of monkeys.” That phrase is the best Lionel can come up with to describe his brilliant sister who was the top of her class until she got pregnant with Des and dropped out of school.
From 2006 to 2013, the awakened Des grows up with his loathsome lout of an uncle, falls in love with a girl named Dawn, marries, and has a daughter named Cilla. When Lionel wins the lottery, he has, to put it mildly, trouble dealing with it, goes back to prison, and comes back out even a shrewder man than before. He goes on to become both the star and villain, along with his girlfriend “Threnody,” of the English tabloids. Finally, a shared crime back in 2006, committed by Lionel and kept secret by Des, comes back to haunt them both. And there are Lionel’s pit bulls on the balcony of Des’s apartment in Avalon Towers on a scorching summer night, pit bulls that must be kept from getting inside where the baby Cilla sleeps. This provides the thrilling climax of the novel about which no more can be said without spoiling the story.
The novel’s scenes range from hilariously ribald to deeply moving and serves as both a satire on the “state of England” and a lyric on the joys of learning, love, and parenthood. It is filled with Amis’ amazing way with language—his refusal to use a cliché and thus his freshness of phrase—as when the crisis of the book is over and Des is making his way through a village back home to his wife and child:
On the scalloped surface of the millstream a green-headed, white-collared mallard led a flotilla of young, the busy ducklings weaving runic patterns in her wake. The air seemed to ripple with infant voices . . . Des assumed that this feeling would one day subside, this riven feeling, with its equal parts of panic and rapture. Not soon, though. The thing was that he considered it a perfectly logical response to being alive.
The novel ends in thrilling suspense. It is, in the best sense of the word, Dickensian: in its humor, its characters and their names, and in its intricate plot. My only reservation about the novel, besides its overuse of English slang, is that it lacks fullness; it lacks the long luxurious passages that burnish London Fields and The Information. Perhaps Amis is following the path of his mentor, Saul Bellow, whose works grew sparer with his age.
While some critics have described Amis’ work as porno-theological because he writes both about the sexual lives of his characters and matters of the soul, I have never found his work deliberately pornographic in the sense that its goal is to excite the reader into a state of arousal. As an author, he has indeed pondered the role of pornography in the modern life, but his take has been a humorous one, befuddled but transfixed, fascinated but ultimately repelled. He insists that the lives of his villains are empty; they have big holes in them which they try to fill up with the telly, The Sun, and pornography.
What redeems his protagonists from these things is that they try rather to fill the holes with the life of the mind and relationships that beget children. In Lionel Asbo, the arrival of Des’s daughter, Cilla, transforms his and his wife’s lives. For a few weeks, Des is afraid to hold the bundle, but one day he has to and the “love bomb” goes off.
He inspected the warm weight in his arms. The full complement of limbs, the woozily slewing neck (steadied by his fingertips), the vestifially misangled face—whose inquisitive eyes now focused their stare. She was looking at him, or so he felt, in the way that Dawn looked at him when confronted by his frailties and confusions. Not uncritically, but tenderly, forgivingly, and above all knowingly.
I once had a professor who said that when looking at a novel, or an author’s work as a whole, the role of children is highly indicative of the writer’s basic attitude toward life. Do children have a role, are they hardly referred to, or are they mere set pieces? They don’t have to dominate a novel, but to see them play as important role as they do in Amis’ works is heartening.
Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living with his wife and four children in Saco, Maine.
Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.