Book Review: Lionel Asbo, State of England, by Martin Amis

This is the first, and so far only, book by Martin Amis I’ve read.

Lionel Asbo is the story of a working-class Brit career criminal who wins 140 million pounds in the lottery, while in jail, off of a ticket he stole, and had his nephew fill out and mail in.

ASBO is a Brit acronym for “Anti-social Behavior Order,” a fact that is alluded to very briefly in the book, and would be lost on Americans. You can learn more about it here. Essentially, it’s meant to be a court order against behavior that is not necessary illegal, but which is (you might guess) anti-social. Such as drinking too much. It’s similar, I suppose, to our restraining orders, but more broad. I suspect they would be unconstitutional in the US.

The book is written from the point of view of Lionel, and his nephew Desmond (Des), who is half black (not scoring him any points in the social echelon into which he was born). The book opens with Des writing a letter to the Brit counterpart of Dear Abby, because he’s having sexual relations with his grandmother. His grandmother, though, had seven children by the time she was eighteen (starting when she was twelve, as did Desmond’s mom, now dead), so she is only thirty nine while this is going on. This age acceleration is a constant in the book, as Asbo himself is only twenty-one, and his mother (Des’s grandmother) ends up in a home with some mental disorder at the age of about forty-two. Lionel speaks about that age as though it were unbelievably ancient. This is all part of the irony or satire that Amis uses to poke fun at the cultural abyss that is working-class Brit (and US) society.

One of the elements adding tension in the book is the fact that Lionel has done great violence to those having relations with his mother, and Des would prefer to keep it secret.

The book is often funny, unless you’re like me, and consider the culture of the western world to be . . . I don’t know . . . shit. Here’s a guy who is trying (unsuccessfully) to make a career from stealing other people’s things. When we meet him, he’s in jail for receiving stolen goods. His cell mate is in for having a fat dog. The same man popped a ligament getting up from the couch after watching TV for eleven hours. Lionel tells him, “you’ve got to brush up on you ideas, mate.” (sic).

Although certainly funny moments, I watched in horror as this completely psycho-socio-pathic monster is thrust into the world of men by virtue of the fact that he won a vast sum of money from a stolen ticket. He is thrown out of two very swanky hotels in London, and ends up in a hotel that caters to rock stars and other vermin. So they are used to the suddenly rich low-brow. At least the rock star (arguably) has a talent for which there is high demand, warranting the large sums of money they have. Lionel, on the other hand, has done nothing. He has actually done less than nothing, because by all rights, he should be in the penitentiary for a long time. Live, even. He is a murderer and a parasite on society. Nevertheless, through no efforts of his own, he becomes rich and famous. This itself is a comment on popular culture (if the word “culture” can rightly be used).

In contrast, Des is very intelligent, goes to school, marries, gets a good job as a journalist, and starts a family. He is the only one who is not standing with his hand out to get some of his uncle Li’s money. In fact, all he wants from uncle Li is use of the room in their tiny flat, which Lionel uses to store stolen property, for their baby’s nursery. Uncle Li, of course, is so self-centered and sociopathic, that he refuses the request. He does pay the rent, but it has strings.

Buried in the story is Lionel’s sexual deviancy. For one, he prefers porn to actual women. “You know where you are with porn.” But when he becomes rich he is pursued by women. He has his DILFs and MILFs (divorcees I’d like to fuck, and moms I’d like to fuck, respectively). But it seems that he can’t have relations with them without beating them up. Bad. This will be his undoing. This may well be the part of the book that requires the most in-depth examination and analysis, but I’m not able to do it.

Amis is a Brit writer living in the US. The story and the language are very Brit. I don’t suppose he can help it. So, there are some Brit references (not the least of which is ASBO) that Americans will miss. You will generally understand the dialogue, but don’t expect to understand everything in the book.

I found the book to be entertaining and funny. But it’s also disturbing and difficult. There were times when I had to go back to see if I missed something, and there were times when I had to read a paragraph two or three times to figure out what he’s saying. There are a couple paragraphs that I had to give up on and move along. Although humorous and ironic in places, it’s not an easy read.

Did I like the book? Not really. I thought the premise was good, and that it had a lot of potential. I was hoping for an important literary work. And although it had moments that satisfied that, I found the language to be often uninteresting and nearly opaque. I never settled into a flow. I felt that reading it was uncomfortable. Not for its subject or message, which I'm in accordance with, but for the sometimes unclear way it was written.

Should you read it? Yeah, you probably should, for the same reason I read

Atlas Shrugged

: So you can talk about it at dinner parties.