Thursday, August 02, 2012

A Lament for Jolly Old England - Review of "Lionel ASBO" by Martin Amis

I do not take it as accidental that Martin Amis has chosen as the sub-title of his latest novel: "State of England."  I have not read his previous offerings, but I surmise that in this brilliantly dismal tale he is commenting on the troubled state of things in the UK at many levels. The eponymous protagonist, ne'er-do-well rogue Lionel ASBO, has legally changed his name to reflect the most frequent of the criminal charges filed against him: "Anti-Social Behaviour Disorders."  His nephew, an orphaned mixed-race young gent by the name of Desmond Pepperdine, is the true hero of the story, but he is not without his flaws.  Caught up in a complex web of incest, the reader must constantly ask: Is Des an innocent victim here, or a co-conspirator?  When will the seedy past come to light, and who will suffer?

Uncle Lionel, while in jail, wins the lottery and is "set for life."  It becomes clear that money is not sufficient to create a thick enough patina of respectability to cover over Lionel's lower-class roots set in the mythic London borough of Diston, redolent of dystopia.

Pit bulls, wolves and foxes play a significant role in the story - suggestive that the barrier between full-on primal urges ruling our world and our psyches on the one hand and maintaining a modicum of civilization on the other hand is as diaphanous as a window curtain.  Strange sexual urges float in the atmosphere of Diston; GILFs, MILFs, DILFs, and S&M all play a role in the crazy plot line.

Three female characters serve as bookends for the author's view of England and its prospects for the future.  After Uncle Li wins many millions in the lottery and is dubbed by the tabloids as "The Lotto Lout," one of the many "gold diggers" who finds her way into his life is "Threnody," a would-be poetess.  A  "threnody" is a song, hymn or poem of mourning composed or performed as a memorial to a dead person.  This novel, then, is Amis' lament about the death of traditional English culture, wailed plaintively as he decamps from the UK to resettle in the U.S.  Threnody, as Lionel's significant other, represent the worst of the worst.

On the other extreme are tho two positive female influences in Desmond's life - his wife, Dawn, and his daughter, Cilla, named after his departed mother.  Cilla, almost from the moment of her premature birth, bestows a beatific smile on all that she observes and meets.  Almost overwhelmed and devoured by the twin pit bulls who have been fed into a rage on steak and Tabasco sauce, she escapes to offer hope for a "new dawn" in England.

Playing in the background of the novel and of Desmond's grandmother's story are Beatles' songs - emblematic of the pervasive cultural influence of the Fab Four - for good and for ill.   Gran Grace's sons are named for Beatles and Beatles' hangers-on. The title and topic of the Beatles' song playing at the moment always matches the action in the novel.  Case in point: As Gran deflowers her teenage grandson, she does so to the beat of  "When I'm Sixty-four."

The novel, as you may imagine, is in many ways disturbing and discouraging.  Yet, Amis allows us a denouement that strongly suggests hope for Des and his family - and by extension, for Jolly Old England and humanity.



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