Lionel Asbo: State of England
By Martin Amis
As book titles go, Lionel Asbo: State of England is spoiling for a fight. It all but beards you with its declaration: “This is satire!” The ASBO, or Anti-Social Behaviour Order, is a kind of mini-restraining order for delinquents. It was introduced in 1998 to combat a perceived breakdown in discipline among Britain’s youth. Combine that word with State of England, and you know that Lionel Asbo of Avalon Towers, a “subsistence criminal who spends half his life in jail” and bears a physical resemblance to loutish British soccer player Wayne Rooney, is planted firmly in these pages as a stand-in for national malaise. For Lionel, ignorance carries an ethical imperative: “I wouldn’t learn,” he states. “For me that’s a point of principle.” With his sociopathic dogs and thermonuclear temper, Lionel is all that respectable England most despises. The zinger is that this grotesque wins £139 million in the national lottery.
Lionel hails from the fictional and feculent London borough of Diston Town, where people begin their sex lives at elementary school and reach senility by their mid 40s. Here imagery typical of the conservative British press is inflated to hilarious effect: the hunkering packs of feral teenagers, the half-conscious violence. “In Diston, everything hated everything else.” The place is recognizable, because some parts of urban England are indeed profoundly lacking in salubrity. But if Lionel is any example (and if this is satire, he ought to be), the people of Diston chose to be repellent. That’s an uncomfortable notion, especially when, early on in the novel, Lionel sells a local boy to a pedophile ring. It’s hard to laugh at that; hard to take it seriously, too.
But just when you think Amis has turned reactionary, he goes soft. When Lionel becomes a millionaire, he enters the celebrity world, which, as we all know, arrives pre-satirized. Amis moves from mocking the afflicted to the mockery of the culture that afflicts us, as Lionel metamorphoses into a front-page regular, scrapping with the paparazzi and sinking Dom Pérignon by the pint. Grown rich, Lionel is a nastier but less provocative figure than the thug from Avalon Towers. The character who started the novel as a representative of the British underclass—sometimes derisively labeled a “chav”—becomes somewhere around the midway point an aberration, a freak. We’re told, “the chav was a type. And Lionel was not a type.” Devoid of the broader significance that accrued to him in the early sections of the book, he ends up a mere launch pad for a lot of good knockabout fun.
Amis has spoken of satire as if it’s the only game in town for the modern novelist. But the best satirists operate like Jane Austen, who, to be sure of hitting her mark, chose targets from the types found among her well-to-do readership. In contrast, no reader is going to recognize himself in Lionel Asbo, because Asbo is no reader. This makes Amis’s latest a comic counterpart to certain Ian McEwan novels, such as Saturday or Enduring Love, in which an educated hero defends the homestead from a threatening and irrational knuckle-dragger: campfire stories for the middle classes. They may convey an important a message about the state of England, but if so, I suspect it’s inadvertent.