Lionel Asbo: State of England

By Martin Amis

Parul Sehgal,, August 29, 2012

Too much is made of literature’s ennobling qualities. There are those of us who come to books for the debasement and danger, for Hannibal and Humbert. For Faulkner’s Popeye and Hedda Gabler. We want to meet the monsters.

And monsters are Martin Amis’ specialty. Amis traffics in pathologies — people who are born bad and get worse, Disney villains with crazy names and sexual predilections. Enter Lionel Asbo, antihero and antagonist of Amis’ newest book. This savant of sociopaths was declared “uncontrollable” at 18 months and slapped with his first restraining directive at 3 years old. He’s even changed his name to match his sentence (“Asbo” stands for Anti-Social Behavior Order). Lionel now handles the “very hairiest end of debt collection” with the assistance of two pit bulls that he raises on a diet of hot sauce, regular beatings and beer. His nephew and ward, Desmond, is a Dickensian naif: a wide-eyed orphan bent on self-improvement but dabbling in a little trouble of his own: The teenager is having an affair with his grandmother and is terrified that Lionel will find out.

It’s a terrific setup, a taut mousetrap ready to go off. But the trap never snaps. Lionel Asbo is essentially five characters in search of a plot. Lionel wins 140 million pounds in the lottery, and the plot quickly becomes a litany of the ridiculous ways he spends his money, allowing Amis to indulge in his most unfortunate tendency: cruelly caricaturing poor people. His reproofs are ripped from Bill Cosby’s infamous “pound cake” speech: The poor stay poor because of their laziness, obesity and drunkenness, their propensity to give their children silly names, their butchering of the English language. It’s that last sin that he really can’t abide. He devotes a mystifying amount of attention on Lionel’s pronunciation. Every time Lionel says a word ending in “k,” Amis spells it out phonetically so we won’t miss how he mangles it.

It’s a shame. These politics are harnessed to electric prose. There’s not one limp or lazy sentence to be found. Continue reading