Down and Out

  • Martin Amis. Lionel Asbo: State of England. Knopf, 2012.

In 2002 an English trash collector named Michael Carroll won £9.7 million in the National Lottery. After the traditional announcement that money wouldn’t change him, that all he wanted to buy was a small house next to a lake where he could fish, Carroll began spending his winnings on the usual lottery fare: cars, houses, and jewelry. He bought a mansion and then a field behind the mansion, which he turned into a stock-car racing track. He set off fireworks and signal flares, gleefully antagonizing his new neighbors. He staged days-long toga parties fueled by crack cocaine, caviar and champagne, for which the price of entry (for women) was to sleep with him. In 2005 Carroll was arrested for criminal damage after driving around his small Norfolk village, Downham Market, catapulting ball bearings at shop windows. He was punished with the Labour government’s controversial Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO), a low-level sanction that used fines, electronic tagging, and control orders to combat petty crime, and which quickly became a symbol of Britain’s renewed class politics. Carroll spent the next eight years ostentatiously spending his winnings. In 2010 he was declared bankrupt and went on the dole. Last year he attempted to commit suicide twice.

The rise and fall of Michael Carroll provides the backbone of Martin Amis’s latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Asbo, formerly Pepperdine (in a nod to onomastic realism, Lionel, the youngest-ever ASBO recipient at age 3, changed his name), is a “brutally generic” Wayne Rooney look-alike. A professional criminal, he is the grotesque and thuggish fruit of David Cameron’s “broken Britain,” “the youngest of a very large family super-intended by a single parent who was barely old enough to vote.”  Asbo’s youth is measured out in the escalating seriousness of his crimes. At the beginning of the novel,  he spends his days robbing, extorting, and training his dogs to fight, energizing them with steaks laced with Tabasco sauce and cheap lager. He loves his mother but is enraged by the fact of her sex life. When he’s not watching internet porn he casually beats his girlfriends. He nags his nephew, Desmond, to carry a knife when he leaves the house, and not to stay cooped up all day reading but to go outside and steal cars. “I despair of you sometimes, Des,” he says. “Why aren’t you out smashing windows? It’s not healthy.”

Other recent London novels, such as John Lanchester’s Capital, have attempted to explore the variegation of contemporary London, where the destitute and affluent live cheek by jowl. Amis’s London trilogy, Money, London Fields, and The Information, was populated by a similarly diverse cast, and written at a point in his career when he might conceivably have had some first-hand knowledge of his subjects. But despite its subtitle, Lionel Asbo is not a state of England novel nor even a state of London novel at all: it is set in Diston, and Diston is a no-place, a dystopia of high rises and violent streets and dog fights, plucked from the nightmares of middle England. Diston’s is a psychotic geography, “with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzly low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste.” Although it is a suburb of east London, it is peculiarly monocultural. Des has a Trinidadian father, but his is not a speaking part, and he disappears in the first few pages of the novel, left paralytic on a park bench, unresponsive to his son’s attempts to rouse him.

Diston, like Lionel Asbo itself, suffers from a general cultural amnesia. Everything and everyone in Diston is young, but in its youth the place is old. As the novel opens Lionel is a “heavily weathered twenty-one,” middle-aged by Diston standards:

On an international chart for life expectancy, Diston would appear between Benin and Djibouti (fifty-four for men and fifty-seven for women). 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). Thus the age structure in Diston was strangely shaped. But still: Town would not be thinning out.

The paradoxes of age assert themselves romantically also. Des falls in love with his grandmother and they have an illicit affair, until she dumps him for an even younger lover. Lionel finds out about this affair and does something unspeakable (“a peado for a mum,” he despairs). The threat of Lionel finding out about Des’s indiscretions appears as though it will provide the impetus for the rest of the novel.

Then Lionel wins the lottery and, donning a cashmere football scarf, embarks on a protracted comedy of manners. He drinks champagne by the pint, gets chucked out of hotel after hotel, doesn’t know how to eat lobster, and slathers his caviar in Tabasco sauce. He takes up with a pneumatic model named “Threnody” (the quotation marks are, for some unexplained reason, essential), who writes poetry and covets the T. S. Eliot Prize. He packs his aging and, thankfully for Des, Alzheimer’s-suffering mother off to a nursing home on Cape Wrath, at the northernmost tip of Scotland. (“I said Woman—you forty-two. You can’t fight the march of time.”) Meanwhile Des betters himself, goes to university (he has more modest dreams than most of Amis’s studious teenagers—unlike those in The Rachel Papers and The Pregnant Widow, he cannot hope for Oxford), and falls in love with a straightforward girl named Dawn. The rest of the novel is a compendium of mockery. As a journalist sent to write a feature on Lionel and “Threnody” notes, “the trappings of wealth, in Asbo’s case, are just a constant reminder of his basic worthlessness.”

Amis aired many of Lionel Asbo’s concerns in a short story published in the New Yorker in 1996. “State of England” told the story of a bouncer made good, Mal, attempting to navigate his way through a newly socially mobile Britain. Like Asbo, Mal can’t read well, can’t speak well, and doesn’t know how to behave in restaurants. At the end of the story he is set upon and beaten up by a group of operagoers whom he has tried to extort by clamping their cars. At his son’s sports day, he reflects on the state of the nation, lamenting the loss of the old categories that the New Labour government, with its “we’re all middle class now” mantra, would so triumphantly announce after its landslide victory a year later:

So class and race and gender were supposedly gone (and other things were supposedly going, like age and beauty and even education): all the really automatic ways people had of telling who was better or worse—they were gone. Right-thinkers everywhere were claiming that they were clean of prejudice, that in them the inherited formulation had at last been purged. This they had decided. But for those on the pointed end of the operation—the ignorant, say, or the ugly—it wasn’t just a decision. Some of them had no new clothes. Some were still dressed in the uniform of their deficiencies. Some were still wearing the same old shit. Some would never be admitted.

The notion of the disenfranchised white working class, left behind by both the right and left, is a compelling one, and though this narrative has been seized by the European right as a way of justifying some aggressively xenophobic, if not racist, policies, it was sensitively handled in “State of England,” which represents something of an end point in Amis’s exploration of class identity. In Lionel Asbo you sense his subsequent failure above all in the dialogue, where a careless snobbery, a real lack of feeling for the speech of the working classes, has appeared.

“The middle classes are under-represented in my books,” Amis said in conversation with the novelist Will Self about a decade ago:

 Self: You don’t like their language.

Amis: There’s nothing going on there. I like talking to working-class people, I like what they say. There’s often something very beautiful about it.

While this anthropological impulse is itself troubling—the proletariat merely fodder for the middle-class novelist—at least it was appreciative, at least it masqueraded as a love of language and liveliness. There was an analogy between the labor Amis expended in renovating every sentence, lavishing the extravagance of his own linguistic gifts, and the care he took in rendering the equal inventiveness of other registers. And so in his early novels Amis paid clinical attention to the way people spoke, to what it symbolized and to the information it contained or covered up. Partly this attentiveness was self-satirizing, a product of class performance itself. As he noted in his memoir Experience, in England in the sixties and seventies the way people spoke was at least as important as what they said. Perhaps it still is. Asked by his son why he pronounced Friday ‘Fridee’ Amis confessed:

I trained myself to do it in my teens because I thought it sounded posh.
Why d’you do that? asked Louis with sincere puzzlement.
Because it used to be cool to be posh.
His head snapped round.
it? . . . Christ . . .

Amis’s first and arguably best novel, The Rachel Papers, is primarily a study of accent and idiom. When Charles Highway first encounters Rachel in the novel he plays a careful game of strategic impersonation:

I opted for thick Chelsea:
“Hhulloh,” as if someone had just informed me that this greeting had an initial
h and I was trying it out.’
“Hello.” Her tone was patronizingly neutral; her accent instantly turned mine into educated upper-middle.
Hello,” I said, now with prurient emphasis, a squadron-commander introduced to a fetching Parisienne.

Amis the imitator tells us all we need to know about Charles Highway’s social anxieties while at the same time providing a commentary on the method of his fiction, a radical ventriloquism coopted by the need to fit in.

In the novels that followed, Amis’s dialogue antennae still seemed to function. The gimmicks of transatlantic English that pepper Money and London Fields are perfectly offset by the fossilized Cockney of the London natives. The new world is above all the source of new language. In The Information too the state of the language is a central concern. Richard, the disappointed novelist at the center of the novel, “had written off rhyming slang long ago. The only ones that were any good were jekylls (for trousers, via Jekyll and Hides = strides) and syrup (for wig, via syrup of figs). And there was something almost poetically crass about boat (for face, via boat race.)”

Rhyming slang, with its laborious etymologies, its spurious neologistic desperation for meaning, feels dated a priori, clichéd even as it’s coined. The gangster Joseph Andrews in Yellow Dog is similarly fond of interpreting his own idioms, dismissing the ability of rhyming slang to express anything new:

Funny word that: bird. Comes from birdlime, rhyming with time. Birdlime was the sticky stuff they put on the branches of trees to kill the birds, Sticky fingers, see: thieving. But it’s the birds that cop it not the branches, so it don’t quite work out. Bird also means “girl.” A richard is a sort, Richard the Third rhyming with bird. [Click.] Rhyming-slang: load of bollocks.

Amis seemingly can’t resist having his characters comment on the state of the language. Throughout his novels, they give impromptu lectures on etymologies and points of usage. His dialogue is autotelic: it tells us how it should be read. But London’s informal accent has changed over the years, and Amis’s ears have not stayed open to it. Bangladeshi slang has fused with Afro-Caribbean imports. In London an old-school cockney accent has become not just an endangered species but something of a museum relic. Rhyming slang is, as Joseph Andrews implies, nostalgic, well-loved, but no longer vital, perhaps no longer even alive. Pearly Kings and Queens are lumped with spitfires and Union Jack flags as symbols of Britishness. Most cockneys now live in Essex.

When did Amis stop listening? He made a few cringeworthy attempts to render Yardie patois in The Information, (“Some of my boys—they totally rootless. Debt mean nutting to them. Normal to them. Debt is they way of life”; “Ah. Star! See the way how me vex!”) but these were only the first hints that something was wrong, that what Ian Hamilton called Amis’s blend of “low slang and high figurative artifice” was falling apart. Critics have picked up on the odd time-warp effects of Lionel Asbo, and it’s true that most of its pop cultural references are achingly unhip. Lionel Asbo’s Baha Men-inspired epigraph, a riff on “Who let the dogs out?” is one such embarrassment. And there are endless mentions of GILFs and DILFs in the novel, making it seem as though Amis has only recently seen American Pie.

But the new argot is what really seems to trouble him. In Lionel Asbo Amis apparently can’t help sneering over the shoulders of his characters, constantly and laboriously reminding us that what we are reading should not be imagined as being uttered in surround-sound RP:

Lionel pronounced “myth” miff. Full possessive pronouns—your, their, mystill made guest appearances in his English, and he didn’t invariably defy grammatical number (they was, and so on). But his verbal prose and his accent were in steep decline. Until a couple of years ago Lionel pronounced “Lionel” Lionel. But these days he pronounced “Lionel” Loyonel, or even Loyonoo.

Compared to the phonetic specificity of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, or Will Self’s Book of Dave, novels that seduce us with their language, creating worlds by forcing us to collaborate in the sounding out of pronunciation, the effect is jarring and intrusive. Lionel Asbo constantly tells us how we should be hearing its characters speak, rather than letting us listen to them.

“I seemed incapable of using words without stylizing myself” says Charles Highway in The Rachel Papers. The problem with a style is that it can easily fossilize, and Amis’s late style is dangerously imitable, a parody of his early work, full of its tics and spasms but with none of its substance. There are local and specific repetitions, the product of a kind of literary amnesia: in Yellow Dog Clint Smoker’s shoes are “two catamarans lashed in place by a network of cords and cleats,” and in Lionel Asbo they are “two padded floats of glistening ebony.” As in The Rachel Papers the world is never simply the world but “the thing which is called world.” Then there is the infuriating pomposity of the mock-heroic: throughout Lionel Asbo London is referred to as “the great global city”; “health” is “that mighty power”; Calpol, a child’s cough medicine, is “the infant’s opiate—the syrupy suspension of the purple paracetamol.” The tendency to assert belies a lack of confidence—it harrumphs and prods us in the chest with its nicotine-stained fingers. In the end you feel rather like Lionel Asbo himself describing his experience of reading: “After a page or two I keep thinking the book’s taking the piss. Oy. You taking the piss? Then your temper’s gone, and you can’t, uh, regain you concentration. Keep thinking the book’s taking the piss.” When speaking for himself, Amis is generally as good as he ever has been (this is why his nonfiction, his reviews and essays, are still so enjoyable), and for some Lionel Asbo will be able to sustain itself simply on these isolated images, on “the lavish equilateral” of a tie’s Windsor knot, on England “thrumming” past a train window “with its rainbow of greens.” But marking these passages with your pen involves a laborious sentence-by-sentence selection—a characteristic of reading Amis nowadays, when before the markings ran effortlessly down the page.

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