Martin Amis’ new novel satirises empty celebrity culture. But does Amis, a fixture on the celebrity pages himself, miss his target, asks Shougat Dasgupta
IN MY great hall of heroes (a place where Zidane rubs shoulders with Rushdie, Federer shares canapés with David Byrne and Morrissey, Kenny Dalglish exchanges flinty bon mots with Sam Beckett), Martin Amis is often to be found in conspiratorial conversation with Woody Allen. They are plotting to murder their critics. Those ingrates whose insincere pining for the early, funny work is a ploy to stick the knife in over the later, less funny work. Those philistines who mock the self-consciously serious work — Interiors, say, or Koba The Dread; who mock Allen’s ambition to sit alongside Bergman and Fellini in the pantheon, Amis’ to be counted with Bellow and Roth.
Fans indulge missteps. Who can find it in their hearts to complain too loudly about Shalimar The Clown when they remember Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories andImaginary Homelands? Who can be too disappointed about Anything Else or Hollywood Ending when they are preceded by Manhattan and Husbands and Wives and Crimes and Misdemeanors and Stardust Memories? Who did not forgive Zidane for that headbutt?
Reviewing, though, unlike hero worship or serious criticism, is about the moment. It is the reviewer’s sorry task to discuss the work at hand, to assess attentively the faint (and growing fainter) echoes. And so we must talk here of Lionel Asbo, not Money, not London Fields,Success, or even Dead Babies, all of which thresh out more successfully, more scabrously Amis’ familiar obsessions: class, pornography, London, literature, noisome masculinity. It’s not that Lionel Asbo is bad; it’s just more of the same. Only now, the satire is dated, its targets irrelevant. The still supple sparkle of the Amis sentence cannot disguise the dullness of the lead beneath.
Last week, I watched Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, noting how its stylistic flourishes overwhelmed its putative subject. Charmed by Kashyap’s wit, by his film’s charisma, I overlooked the content or lack thereof. I was happy to see it as an exercise, a particularly long exercise, in style. A TEHELKA colleague familiar with the area and the particulars of the story Kashyap was purporting to tell, had a different reaction, sputtering at the film’s distracting excesses. If I were English, I might similarly bridle at Lionel Asbo, at the superficial, often inaccurate treatment of its subject: the vulgarity of popular culture, its crass, tabloid-driven values. Besides, in an England of bankers’ bonuses and the ‘Chipping Norton set’, that cosy self-congratulatory political-media-showbiz nexus, satirising the emptiness of celebrity culture, the elevation of footballers, their loutish behaviour and the pneumatic girls they sleep with, is to mostly miss the point.
Amis brings this sort of scorn upon himself. A novel called Lionel Asbo: State of Englandis surely calculated to raise hackles; that subtitle begging to be quarrelled with, to be dismissed as the vainglorious condescension of an ageing grandee. Amis, himself, appears to regret it, confessing to a journalist that his 12-year-old daughter had, in fluent Brooklynese, “really passionately” argued: “Dad, enough with the subtitles, for crying out loud!” The subtitle has been reported in England, based on an interview Amis gave to a French magazine, as a disgusted farewell to the country, a last insult hurled as he boarded the plane to New York. He now disavows that interview and says he simply liked the phrase ‘State of England’ that he’d used it in the novel.
Dickens’ sentences throbbed with sympathy. Amis, perhaps, has none left and so his matchless prose is made cruel
For all the magisterial resonance of the subtitle, for all its promise of official pronouncement, Lionel Asbo has much less to say about the current state of England than, say, Money, the definitive novel of Thatcher’s Britain (as The Great Gatsby is of the Jazz Age), did about the brittle, shellacked, cult-of-Mammon in the late ’80s. An ASBO, incidentally, for readers less in thrall to British tabloids than Amis, or your reviewer, is an anti-social behaviour order, an invention of Tony Blair’s government intended to demonise minor infractions of public civility (swearing on the street, that sort of thing) and inevitably a badge of pride among the young and disaffected towa rds whom it seemed ASBOs were targeted. Indeed, so proud is Amis’ eponymous anti-hero of his loutishness that he changes his surname from Pepperdine.
In Success, which Amis wrote over 30 years ago, London is a city in which on “every street you walk along you find the same proportion of people who do nothing but fizz all the hours there are, fizz with hatred or disappointment or grief, or fizz simply because they are ugly and poor and mad”. Amis’ London is also Dickens’ London, a city of seething grotesques, its stench forcing you to recoil from the page, and fictional Diston, a dystopic section of the East End is no different: “On an international chart for life expectancy, Diston would appear between Benin and Djibouti (fifty-four for men and fiftyseven 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).”
Lionel, or Loyonoo as he pronounces his own name, is a working class brute in the Amis tradition. He enters the novel as “a great white shape, leaning on the open door with his brow pressed to his raised wrist, panting huskily, and giving off a faint grey steam in his purple singlet (the lift was misbehaving, and the flat was on the thirty-third floor — but then again Lionel could give off steam while dozing in bed on a quiet afternoon)”. Lionel’s nephew and foil (another favourite Amis trope) is Desmond Pepperdine, consumed with guilt over his affair with his grandmother, Lionel’s mother, but also the need to conceal the affair from his violent, psychopathic uncle. Lionel’s fortunes, literally, are changed when he discovers, while in prison of course, that he has won £140 million on the national lottery. This is the catalyst for a novel held precariously together, like many of Amis’ previous comic novels, by a series of set pieces. Where the narrative lags, thin and limp, the prose propels forward, all energy and sinew like the slavering pitbulls Lionel keeps.
Just as Desmond and Lionel are funhouse mirror images of each other — one tall and slim, the other “slablike”, one gentle, the other, well, not — so Diston is a clash of opposites. “To evoke the London borough of Diston,” writes Amis, “we turn to the poetry of Chaos: Each thing hostile/To every other thing: at every point/Hot fought cold, moist dry, soft hard, and the weightless/Resisted weight.” Amis’ prose, his high style — “That afternoon the lake was minutely runnelled by the wind, like corduroy” — is in constant battle with the squalor of the London life he describes. Dickens too put an orotund, florid style in service of the low, the degradations of urban poverty. But Dickens’s sentences throbbed with sympathy. Amis, perhaps, has none left and so his matchless prose in Lionel Asbo is made cruel; a satirist is ill-served by pointing and sneering from on high.
Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.