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Martin Amis: State of Decline

Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year. Enjoy.

Lionel Asbo: State of England
By Martin Amis
(Knopf, 255 pp., $25.95)

MARTIN AMIS has reached that not entirely enviable plateau in an eminent literary career where he (and we) might be better off if he gave up writing novels and just granted interviews from now on. He could air his observations on issues throbbingly relevant in the republic of letters, then retire to his den for a nip or a nap. Giving up fiction would lighten his workload considerably, and take the pressure off having to re-prove himself to the growing sector of the literary punditry that treats him with such jaded familiarity.

Since London Fields or so, I find myself anticipating the profiles, chat sessions, and drink visits promoting the novels more than I do the results themselves—reminiscent of the patch in Mel Brooks’s career when his guest spots on “The Tonight Show” plugging his latest self-wallow were funnier, jazzier, and more turned-on to the audience than the actual releases, as any bleary survivor of Spaceballs or Robin Hood: Men in Tights can attest. The Q&A format seems to smoke out more reverie from Amis, unclenching his clam-tight control. Not that he puts on a command performance for the journalists who gingerly approach, fretful of running afoul of a verbal scowl, however graciously he offers them a suitable beverage. Nearly every Amis interview expresses the wary, battle-weary tone of a veteran interviewee hiking Boot Hill again. But within this monochromatic range he is far more engaging, perceptive, interesting, and adept at cultural landscaping than he is in the novels themselves, the forced labors of Night Train, Yellow Dog, House of Meetings.

By accident or by design, Amis has developed a knack for initiating a first wave of publicity that provokes a backlash that triggers a counter-wave, a ripple field of controversy that has little relation to the novel coming out but keeps its title and his name in play. Shortly before the release of The Pregnant Widow, he mused that a “silver tsunami” of ga-ga geezers threatened to engulf society, “a population of demented very old people, like an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafés and shops.” He proposed the possibility of street corner “euthanasia booths,” where the wrinklies could receive a martini and a medal for offing themselves as a public service rather than dragging out the inevitable. This Swiftian thought experiment did not endear him to the nearly departed, though in follow-up remarks Amis was eloquently emphatic and empathetic about the misery that Iris Murdoch and his stepfather, Lord Kilmarnock, went through in their drawn-out demises. And after all, as he pointed out, he himself was a junior member of the silver tsunami.

In the run-up to the publication of Lionel Asbo, his new novel, Amis gave a drove of interviews in which he discussed aging, smoking, parenthood, grandparenthood, the torrential corrosion of porn (porn-concern is often a sign of spiritual arthritis—see John Cheever’s later outbursts), his and his wife’s recent move to Brooklyn, and the weight of the loss of his longtime friend Christopher Hitchens (“it’s hard to make progress with grief”), to whom the book is dedicated—so many unfailingly interesting interviews that it got to the point where I could almost hear his murmurous voice in my ear, like a grumpy lullaby. It is the acute articulation of Amis in offhand performance—the phrase-measuring, chopstick darts of insight, the ponderous buildup to a lethal-jab punchline—that makes the inattentive drift and dawdle of Lionel Asbo such a discomforting shock.

IT ISN’T JUST THAT Amis’s heart doesn’t seem to be in it with this book. His brain seems to be hanging back, too, somewhat reluctant and hazily disengaged. Strictly as narrative, Lionel Asbo doesn’t over-exert itself, fading in and out of time, breaking into exclamation marks for no apt reason (“And guess who they ran into. Jon and Joel!” [Jon and Joel are dogs]), ending sections with weather summaries worthy of Scandinavian noir (“The winters were unsmilingly cold,” “The winters were medievally cold,” “the winter in between was petrifyingly cold”), and outfitted with comic riffs that manage to be unfunny to the point of bafflement, such as the changes that Amis tries to ring on the conceit of a brace of sons being named after the Beatles, leading to dialogue exchanges such as: “‘Plain as day,’ said John. ‘Open-and-shut,’ said Paul. ‘Common sense,’ said George. ‘No-brainer,’ said Ringo.” It’s like listening to coconuts conk heads.

The Pregnant Widow revealed that Amis had lost a bit of velocity on his wicked curve—the delivery of the wisecracks seemed just a hair off—but it had a firmer handle on itself, a coherent small-scale time and place. This novel’s subtitle—State of England—promises a diagnosis of the condition of the country that he has left behind, an allegorical heft, but the dysfunctional city in which it is set—Diston, “with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste”—never seems anything more than a rear projection, an urban collage. It’s an anywhere nowheresville.

Amis has reiterated in interviews and in an article for this magazine that the decision to leave England was based on familial concerns and not a desire to flee that celebrity-whore, junk-food hellhole before it went celebrity clockwork orange. I believe him, since it is the polite thing to do and because this novel doesn’t have the kick of a true kiss-off. Had Lionel Asbo been fired by the sort of fury that drove D.H. Lawrence to damning indictment—“Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the sniveling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today”—it would have had more blood, bubble, and compulsion than this sketch-pad of disdain.

The slothful state of England in Lionel Asbo is drawn through a kitchen-sink portrait of yob life that is often played for grotesque travesty in pop culture, as in the Monty Python sketch “The Most Awful Family in Britain Annual Awards,” where the third-worst brood spent their mornings slagging each other off and discussing their bowel irrigation (“Wilkinson’s Number 8 Laxative Cereal. Phew. That one went through you like a bloody Ferrari”), and the winning clan was so ghastly they couldn’t even be shown on TV. More recently, we have the British cartoon magazine Viz, which bacterially teems with flatulent slobs and fat slags, and the Channel 4 series “Shameless,” set on a Manchester council estate, an ode to squalor and chemical waste from the neck up that has been Americanized for Showtime cable. In Amis’s book everything rotten about busted-ass Britain is pressed into the cookie dough of Lionel Pepperdine, a bulk-sized bully, a layabout and criminal whose chief ability is “disseminating tension,” an intimidation factor amplified by the pair of “psychopathic pitbulls” he owns who move “like missiles of muscle.”

Amis’s protagonist earns the handle “Lionel Asbo” due to the mini-reign of terror he began spreading as a mere toddler. At the age of three he smashed car windshields with paving stones. Generic cruelty to animals escalated into an attempt to burn down an entire pet shop. “Had he come along a half generation later, Lionel’s first Restraining Directive would have been called a basbo, or Baby asbo, which (as all the kingdom now knew) stood for Anti-Social Behavior Order.” A bad seed sullenly intent on getting even better at being bad, Lionel sports his ASBOs as badges of honor.

IN AN UNSIGNED notice of Amis’s non-fiction collection Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, and Other Excursions that long ago appeared in the satirical fortnightly Private Eye, the reviewer mentioned the chapters in which Amis interviewed John Updike, played snooker with Julian Barnes, and eulogized Philip Larkin, who went about their belletristic business with routine flair. “Unsurprisingly, Mart’s much better when he’s writing about darts or football, subjects that allow him to do what he does best. Oddly, what Mart is really good at is patronizing the working classes. Those darts players, those fat bastards with fisted lagers and piggy eyes! Just watch Mart take them on, that’s all!” He’s still patronizing them, despite protests to the contrary. In the interview with New York magazine, Amis declared that “I love the working class, and everyone from it I’ve met, and think they’re incredibly witty, inventive—there’s a lot of poetry there.... A lot of thwarted intelligence.”

There may be poetry there, but there isn’t any poetry here. From beginning to end, Lionel Asbo is a whale spout of clichés and commonplaces—“Of women in general, Lionel sometimes had this to say, More trouble than they worth, if you ask me”—and about as witty as a brick to the skull. A repository of ruthless, short-sighted self-interest, Lionel encarcasses a slit-eyed cunning capable of sniffing out enemy betrayal and craven dissembling, suggesting Tony Soprano two rungs down on the evolutionary ladder, but his rare attempts at self-improvement and appearing clever are feeble, risible. “Says he read a whole dictionary.” “Which dictionary?” “Pocket Cassell’s, but still.” The counterpoint to Lionel is his nephew Des, an industrious lad who goes to the library to do actual reading and whom Amis has described as the nicest character he has ever created. He is also the dullest. Granted, Des has been having sexual relations with his grandmother, but within the welter of mouth-breathing pathologies at prey here, afterschool incest seems an almost tender sin, though it leads to terrible reckonings.

THE BIG TURN in the novel is an undeserved reversal of fortune. While in prison, Lionel wins the Lotto—a whopping 140 million pounds, catapulting him from just another belligerent bald head bobbing in a sea of blobs to an instant-notoriety “Lotto Lout,” whose exploits and excesses are covered like King Kong’s swing through Manhattan. As with Roseanne in the desperate last season of her sitcom, when her family hit the jackpot for $108 million, Lionel doesn’t acquire taste or refinement with his windfall. His yahoo appetite simply gets greater legroom to sprawl, a larger funnel to feed its greedy maw, whether he’s feasting like Henry VIII on a bucket of KFC or more fancily dining: “Propped up on silken pillows, Lionel Asbo sat in the great barge of the four-iron four-poster with the gilt breakfast tray resting on his keglike thighs.”

Lionel becomes a buffoon parody of a country squire presiding over “Wormwood Scrubs,” named after his favorite prison, a thirty-room Gothic pile surrounded by manicured lawns and protected with the fortress security of a Colombian drug lord. His wealth and anti-charisma attracts a trophy girlfriend-adviser-tabloid-siren named Threnody, whose “famous boobs” are “more like pottery than flesh.” Threnody is clearly modeled on Katie Price, a famous-for-being-famous human blow-up doll whom Amis once dismissed as “two bags of silicone,” though he later issued a lukewarmish endorsement of her memoirs, for whatever inscrutable reason. The name Katie Price of course means nothing in America, where we have plenty enough big bazoomy bubble-butted no-talent reality-TV dirigibles of our own to keep us occupied without importing additionals. As an it-came-from-the-lower-classes celebrity freak and a symbol of the fall of empire, Lionel himself seems rather dated and quaint compared with our locally grown Honey Boo Boo and her go-go juice.

Doing a caricature of a gross caricature risks redundancy unless you go all the campy way with it, and Lionel Asbo is too drizzly gray for hot-pink and gash-gold vermilion. Even exaggeration requires a certain exactitude, and nothing here comes across as investigated on foot, or personally eyewitnessed. Whatever one thinks of Tom Wolfe’s novelistic powers and execution, when Wolfe curates the palatial excesses of arrivistes, the blinding kitsch of pimped-out bling, he escorts the reader on an interior-decorating tour that didn’t derive from a catalog or a magazine spread. Always on the go, Wolfe remains America’s oldest boy reporter. Lionel Asbo, however, reads like a tabloid saga observed from the perspective of an educated broadsheet reader, an arched-eyebrow exercise in armchair editorializing.

Aiming downward narrows Amis’s vision, targets easy pickings. It’s the old joke—“Sire, the peasants are revolting” “They certainly are”—played straight. Horrendous taste in decoration and piggy manners are depicted as a defective chip in the lumpenprole Homer Simpson donut brain when some of the most god-awful eyesores have been planted on the landscape by billionaire hedge fund managers and Russian oligarchs, not lotto winners who happened to hit the lucky numbers. The asbos aren’t the ones running the casino. The power they wield only extends as far as they can swing a bottle.

THE STATE OF ENGLAND in this book mirrors the state of Amis’s morale (moribund), and the shellacking the novel has received on both sides of the Atlantic can have done nothing to improve it. I watched Charlie Rose’s interview with Amis, and, despite Amis’s contention that he doesn’t read reviews, his subdued, sparkless manner was that of a battery victim. But morale can always enjoy an upswing and moving into a new house can renew and release creative energies, as Gore Vidal observed in relation to Henry James and the shift to Lamb House (from which came The Wings of the Dove). Perhaps Amis’s new vantage point in Brooklyn will re-invigorate this most American of British writers into becoming the American American rhythm ace he aspires to be, though it’s somewhat dismaying that he has already sneak-previewed his next book to an interviewer from the Telegraph as “my second visit to the Holocaust”—well, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Like his friend and fellow expat Salman Rushdie, Amis finds himself in the tricky predicament of a high-altitude author of literary fiction in a pop-genre landscape that prizes accessibility. Name recognition is not enough anymore. In his youthful past Amis may have done the punk-inflected Dead Babies, an erudite fanboy ode to video games (Invasion of the Space Invaders), and the frazzled, adrenaline jag of Money, but Lionel Asbo shows that he doesn’t have the storytelling gifts to compete with the program grid that television has laid in our heads. When Lionel Asbo attempts to crank up horrible apprehension in its third act—through a melodramatic bit of crosscutting involving Lionel’s pit bulls and an infant in danger of becoming their next doggy dinner, a gruesome dingo-ate-my-baby scenario—I found myself thinking, “This is the sort of sick grabber ‘Breaking Bad’ does so much better.” That I kept being thrown out of this novel into television shows may say something about my easily diverted and derailed attention span, but it also indicates that there wasn’t much in the writing-thinkingperceptualizing of Lionel Asbo to keep the brain seatbelt-fastened.

The novel reads like the work of a writer who has become bored with his own voice, and who can blame him? Whatever well-deserved vanities Amis cradles as an author, he does not strike me as someone completely in love with the sound of his own drone. Next year will note the fortieth anniversary of his debut novel The Rachel Papers, a brilliant showpiece of young-man bravado that had the snap of Mick Jagger’s belt-whip in “Midnight Rambler.” It would have been a tough number for any writer to follow, but not for Amis, who refined and extended and textured his aspish voice until reaching the white cocaine blaze of Money in 1984, a decade-definer marred only by a doppelganger device that was like having Nabokov stick his nose into the peepshow booth. (By drawing too neat a line from The Rachel Papers to Money, I’m doing an injustice to Other People, a strange cross between Val Lewton’s cinematic hauntings and Craig Raine’s “Martian” poems that is so unrepresentative an Amis work that it’s become something of a ghost in his oeuvre.)

Amis was never the sort of cozy writer who could settle into a plummy mellow maturity—as in Time’s Arrow and The Information, his mature voice bears the mortal freight of history’s horrors and of personal extinction—and as he keeps sharp watch on the chipping away of body and mind by aging’s cruel elves, going full curmudgeon isn’t really an option. His father beat him to it with his fussing about language and his reactionary effusions, and the son is too adventurous to revive that crusty vaudeville act. Another model offers itself: his hero and mentor Saul Bellow, who managed to maintain up to the end a sly, clued-in voice that had an octopus reach of everything around it—a confidential monologue at the service of Bellow’s wraparound curiosity and cagey parsing of others’ motives, which became so embracing that his later novellas turned into conversational suites. But dialogue in Amis’s novels, which certainly is plentiful, stays stuck on the platform, since he is less interested in the intimacies of characters than in the ideas or the conceits that they envelop, and there is no dialectic between his cut-out dolls, no Shavian jousting. Lionel Asbo ends with a domestic note of renewal, of new life coming into the world, but it is an unconvincing, hackneyed exit, because Amis is not really engaged in new life coming in but in old life going out, the twilight shimmer before the curtain drop. He hasn’t found a way to voyage into it yet, as Bellow did and Philip Roth ragingly has. He’s got time, but the hour is late.

James Wolcott is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and is the author, most recently, of Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York (Doubleday). This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “The Yob that Failed.”