When is a satire not a satire? The answer to that question is apparently when the author changes his mind. Lionel Asbo, the latest novel by Martin Amis is/was a satire of British tabloid culture and how it lionises the great unwashed, elevating them to the heights of celebrity. The novel has been badly received by critics, being almost universally panned. The main points of criticism focused on Amis’ seeming inability to understand what constitutes satire.
Throughout the book there is a fatal ambiguity between what Amis is supposedly satirising and how much of the detail he presents is an attempt at verisimilitude. This flaw has killed many an attempted satire before, and Lionel Asbo seems destined for the same fate.
But wait! This isn’t satire you see. It’s a ‘modern fairy tale’, whatever that is. It says so on the back of the book. This dodgy defence has been mustered by Amis repeatedly in defence of his defective latest novel. The problem is describing the book in terms of a genre you or one your marketing people have contrived at a meeting just won’t do. To be of a genre, a novel must contain identifiable features which make it so. A fairy tale by its definition demands a supernatural element, the clue residing in the reference to ‘fairy’ in the genres title, a detail which I am sure that Amis a professional writer is aware of. The novels conventions in terms of representation and style are more akin to the genre of satire than that of the fairy tale. Call me old-fashioned but I’ll judge a books genre by my own criteria which I have developed over my lifetime of reading rather than follow the prescriptions of a books back cover.
The story, in so far as there is one, revolves around the eponymous Mr.Asbo a living embodiment of all that’s wrong with Britain today. “Is he a banker or Tory politician?” I hear you ask. No, I ‘m afraid, Mr.Asbo is a member of the underclass. That Amis, a writer existing in tumultuous times of unprecedented global financial strife and chaos, caused by short-sighted politicians in cahoots with the rapacious pirates of the financial industry, set his sights on the underclass as a target for his ire is baffling to say the least.
The novel is set in fictional Diston, an urban wonderland of cartoon violence populated by grotesques who make Dickensian ne’er do wells look like shrinking violets. Describing Diston, Amis tells us, “On an international chart for life expectancy, Diston would appear between Benin and Djibouti…And that wasn’t all. On an international chart for fertility rates, Diston would appear between Malawi and Yemen (six children per couple-or per single mother).” By comparing Diston to these yucky foreign lands Amis conveys the uncivilised nature of the place. This charming piece of domestic imperialism via comparison, conjured up images of Amis’ research for the novel, which seems to have comprised of him slapping on a pith helmet and khakis, buying a six-pack of special brew, and sipping it tentatively in front of a boxed set of Shameless whilst taking notes, in his no doubt capacious and well-appointed house.
The pantomimic protagonist Asbo is a loutish figure at odds with society. He blunders from violent incident to violent incident, wilfully refusing to learn or grow as a character. Asbo is the son of Grace Pepperdine, their different surnames explained by Lionel’s decision to legally change his to Asbo in a typical display of his antisocial stubbornness and pride. Grace, a single mother, has multiple children sired by many fathers from various cultural backgrounds, because as Martin Amis would probably tell you this is what those kinds of people do.
As a member of the underclass she also has no problem in ignoring the universal taboo that prevails in every culture currently in existence, namely incest. You see Grace is improbably having sex with schoolboy Desmond, the son of her deceased daughter, and another product of one of those shocking multi-cultural couplings. This will prove to be a problem for Desmond if Asbo, a man who doesn’t take kindly to his mother having a sex life with anyone, never mind relatives, finds out. Desmond, through whom we witness most of Asbo’s brutish behaviour, is the character the reader is supposed to empathise with. In the absence of his Father and due to the premature death of his mother, Desmond has looked to Asbo as an unlikely father figure.
Despite his willing role in the incest with his grandmother we can tell Desmond is a good guy because he reads books. This clumsy indicator of the characters innate morality reminded me of the fusty ideas about the link between morality and education which held sway in Victorian times, an era that Amis would no doubt feel more at home in than our present one. As the novel progresses the years pass, Des goes to university, Asbo goes to prison, Grace gets dementia, Des gets a boring girlfriend called Dawn, Asbo gets out of prison, Des gets a job and has a kid with Dawn, Asbo goes to prison etc… During one of his many prison stays Asbo wins the lottery. The media find out. Asbo becomes a celebrity with predictable outcomes.
He acquires a glamour model girlfriend Threnody who’s pin up rival is called Danube. Geddit? Danube a river!!! Like…Jordan! This is pretty much the level the humour and satire aspires to throughout the novel. I could continue to summarise the plot for you but don’t see much point given anyone could guess it with equal accuracy, if told to imagine the most pedestrian formulaic scenarios possible involving an underclass lottery winner.
The biggest problem with the book is that it almost reads like it was written by another author satirising Amis’ perception of the underclass, in which case it would be a roaring success. Unfortunately the book is written by Amis, and as such he must be taken to task for defecating in the public’s collective unconscious. At this point you may be thinking that critical response has been a little harsh and begin to feel sorry for the writer, who has toiled away thanklessly to present his work to the only to be savaged by a hostile press.
While such compassion is useful especially when dealing with delicate emerging talents, please remember that we are talking about Martin Amis here. When a writer of his vast experience unloads such a clunker it cannot really be attributed to a misunderstanding of how literature works. The only real explanation one can ascertain is laziness. Amis seems to have lost his hunger and sits complacently on his laurels churning out sub-par copy, feeling that his half-hearted efforts are good enough. The only circumstances I could recommend this novel to be read under would be as an exercise in literary rubbernecking, where you can with morbid fascination observe the corpse of mangled literary ambition wrapped around the dense lamp-post of complacency.