Thursday, 14 June 2012

Lionel Asbo, Martin Amis

well, I am going to take issue with most of the reviewers, like this one, who are disappointed in this book.  The Guardian, of course, loathes it, and Amis, but then they always have, because he and his writing reject their easy, and stupid, certainties.  But I in my turn was disappointed with UK reviewers, who use phrases like "satirical sideswipe at the underclass", and one says that the class of people portrayed is so easy to send up that Amis is shooting fish in a barrel.  None of them have understood this book.  As far as I can tell only Dickens has been able to do what Amis has done here, which is create characters from what might be called the underclass, but certainly is a criminal subset of class, to which he does not belong, and make them human.  I wept for Lionel.  The characters, especially the eponymous Lionel, are the opposite of caricature.  They are human.  There are several nods to Dickens here, including calling the school "Squeers Free".  Of course, the background that the dead-tree press reviewers in the UK have is, well, Posher Than Mine.  I don't think they've met anyone who talks like Lionel does.  And Amis has got certain rhythms of white London speech,  The words roll and tumble over you - London has a "white-van sky".  Of course it all goes too far.  That is what has always been so splendid about Amis.  The "good" characters (Desmond and Dawn) as in Dickens, are ciphers.  But Desmond, at the start of the book, is having sex with his own grandmother.  Dickens never went that far.  But think about it - he went a long way towards it.

There are a few odd and wrong things in this book.  There is a Lottery win.  But it is mentioned, only in passing, and not important to the story, that you "post in" your lottery coupon.  Eh?  The glamour model "Threnody" (I laughed out loud at that) has her hair pulled back tightly and bunned, which is a Croydon face-lift, as any fule kno.  But Amis calls it a "council-house face-lift" - surely no-one has ever said that, nor ever will.  Don't Big Famous Writers like him have Editors who pick these things up?  But the editors went to Oxbridge themselves, so... I believe Oxford and Cambridge graduates do not have such a thing as a 2.2 degree, so they have no call to talk about a Bishop Desmond, as was done in my young days - but is it still, now, in the twenty-first century?  Not sure.  And if it is, does it need to be explained?

Pitbulls, of course there are pitbulls.  I have never read anything about pitbulls other than in the pages of a tabloid newspaper.  I read a certain bit, towards the end of the book, on the tram on the way home today and was gibbering with terror. No spoilers from me though.

Some reviewers have been snooty about detail.  The grandmother (who, they remind us, is only 39 at the start of the book, in shocked and sneering tones) does the Telegraph cryptic crossword.  Oh no, they tell us, someone like that would never have the Telegraph.  Oh yes they would.  Eccentric, yes, it would be, in those circles, but it happens.  In that respect I was reminded of my own mother, a clever girl from a working-class family (Respectable not Rough), who read The Times from quite an early age, to mystified or (behind her back) sneering reaction.

Mostly, I laughed.  Out loud, and often.  And I won't forget Lionel.  This book may not describe to us the state of England, as it front cover would have us believe it does, but it tells us a lot about England.

One more from the reviewers, this one David Annand in the Telegraph: "Longstanding Amis admirers are, I think, slightly perplexed at the odd duality of his late work".  There you are.  Posh and meaningless at the same time.

I haven't read all of Amis.  The first one I read was "Money" and that gave you the state of England, or some part of it, in the 1980s, all right.  I thought "The Rachel Papers" was misogynist.  Teenage boys still read it I am told.  There you are then.  I thought "London Fields" was a near masterpiece.  "House of Meetings" was like Solzhenitsyn with humanity and proper characters.  "The Pregnant Widow" was also misogynist, I thought, and was a load of pretentious old arse.  I sold my (hardback) copy.

Amis apparently read Katie Price's books as research for this book.  And said he enjoyed them.  Good for him.  One of the increasingly gormless reviewers describes the "Threnody" character as "like Jordan with brains".  What gave that person the idea that Jordan was stupid?  Whatever else she might be,she is not that.

But Lionel Asbo.  You are the man.


Anonymous said...

Oxbridge certainly these days has 2:1 and 2:2 degrees. I do believe Oxford made the change in the 1970s. But they still did divide it in a way as they had fourth class degrees. But now it is like everywhere else.

Anonymous said...

How interesting! I havw just bought a copy of the M Amis biography. Thart has not had good reviews either, but a friend of mine liked it and recommended it, so I shall give it a go.

I remember you liked the DB Pierre and this Lionel thing sounds like that - although I have not read the DB Pierre yet. I really should. I have got a copy.

I am three quarters through the Coe - a very odd book indeed and realyl a mesh of treats and not treats. Although not those stuffed pancakes. Modom.

It is quite compulsive and I think we are going to hear lots more from MS Coe and good things too. Things stick in the mind - like that buckle on Ian's belt and the business of breathing through your mouth when confronted with a stinking child in your class. I remember one like that. She was called Angela Chell. It was just the same. I remember the claw wrinkled skin hands as well but don't remember the name of the little girl who had that.

There is some excellent writing here - and some not so . I don't lile al that filmy, Quentin/Hugh stuff. That is not real. The playground stuff is all too real, I am afraid. Can't wait to see how it turns out.

Anonymous said...

Yes.Well. Now I have.

If you have not seen this film - (it is quite old now, but it was Kate Winslet's breakthrough film )Heavenly Creatures, do it!! Folie a deux etc.

Lord of the Flies is the 20th c ancestor - but also, Susan Hill's horrifying I'm the King of the Castle' is extremely close to home - also, like LF, using boys, but more like the Coe, concentrating on a pair rather than a gang.

What is most disturbing about the Coe - and all of the above, is how what is incredible and alien manages to become really inevitable - even fitting and natural - even desirable . And you can see this process happening. Of course it can happen to anybody - and also anybody in certain circumstances could do it. That is the truth of the novel and also the nightmare.

Jane Griffiths said...

absolutely right, and why so chilling. I did see Heavenly Creatures, quite some years ago now, and the parallel is correct.

Anonymous said...

I am now reading the Matrin Amis biogrpahy and it is dire. But I will persevere with it - because I don't give up on books.

Jane Griffiths said...

have not read Amis biog, largely because of reviews. But do recommend Lionel Asbo. Tho understand lots of people are not Amis fans. But I am.

Minnie said...

Excellent review: Martin Amis is really back on form with this one, isn't he? And for all the reasons you identify.
I haven't quite finished it yet; but am enthralled - delighted and horrified in equal measure - and finding it competition for even the Murray -vs- Federer Men's Tennis Olympic final!