This review first appeared, in slightly different form, in The Sunday Business Post in 2012.
The first page of Martin Amis’s new novel goes like this: “Who let the dogs in? …This, we fear, is going to be the question. Who let the dogs in? Who let the dogs in? Who? Who?” And if you are, like me, a genuine Amis fan – the sort of obsessive who’s read the whole corpus twice, with unwavering admiration – your response to these lines will be physiological. There will be a flinch, a cringe, a shudder. There will be the raised eyebrows of outright disbelief. No, you think. He hasn’t done that. He hasn’t opened his new novel with an allusion to the Baha Men’s soul-eroding monstrosity of a novelty single, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Not Mart. Not the author of Money, that glittering cascade of finely-worked perceptions. He wouldn’t.
Well, he has. Here it is, on page one. “Who let the dogs in?” And here it is again, on page 65. And again, on page 139. It is, therefore, something of a relief to find that Lionel Asbo is actually pretty entertaining, if you look past the sexual weirdness and the slightly embarrassing sentimentalism. There are even a few funny jokes, here and there. The book’s subtitle is State of England, which begins, very quickly, to look like a mistake: the England of Lionel Asbo bears only the most glancing of similarities to the real thing, and the novel feels much more like a comic jeu d’esprit than like the caustic satire conjured by the blurb.
In any case, it isn’t the State of England that true devotees will care about: it’s the State of Amis. How’s he looking, these days? What’s the condition of his talent? Well, Amis’s prose gift, that mighty instrument, is starting to seem a bit scuffed and worn by now. His last novel, The Pregnant Widow (2010), was a spectral performance, straitened and warped by grief – it memorialised, among others, Amis’s sister Sally, and the then-terminally ill Christopher Hitchens. Yellow Dog (2003) mashed up the story of a man who suffers a head injury and begins to find himself sexually attracted to his three-year old daughter with a caricature of London gangsters and a mock-up of the Royal Family; the result is so tonally wayward as to seem like a poor parody of – yes – Martin Amis.
Lionel Asbo is better than both of these books, but not by much. The novel’s setting is the fictional London borough of Diston (the name suggesting dystopia, disaffection, dismay, etc; and Dis is Dante’s name for the city that occupies the lower levels of his Inferno). Diston, where “everything hated everything else,” is home to Desmond Pepperdine, the mixed-race nephew of Lionel Pepperdine, a career criminal so proud of his police record that he has changed his surname (by deed poll) to Asbo. As the novel opens, Desmond is fifteen years old and in the midst of a sexual relationship with his own grandmother. In an early Amis novel like Dead Babies (1975), this situation would be played strictly for squirm-inducing laughs. Here, the incest theme is treated in a tone of off-kilter sentimentality – it is the weirdest thing about this very weird book.
Lionel himself is a grotesque lampoon of British working class culture, “brutally generic” – “the slablike body, the full lump of the face.” Lionel’s roots go deep into the Amis canon. He is a direct descendent of John Self and Keith Talent, the “modern, modern” monsters who star in Money (1984) and London Fields (1989) respectively. Some of the old Amis power returns whenever Lionel is in action: he attains a Quilp-like memorability, with his cans of Cobra and his Tabasco-maddened pitbulls. But the novel really gets going when Lionel wins £139,999,999.50 in the Lottery, and becomes a tabloid darling, the “Lotto Lout,” ensconced in a Tudor mansion called “Wormwood Scrubs,” and engaged in an affair of convenience with a poetry-writing glamour model named “Threnody.”
The book’s best gags derive from Lionel’s sudden elevation to planet-conquering wealth. There is a hilarious scene in which Lionel enters London’s oldest fish restaurant and tries, with many a setback, to eat a lobster. But “Keith Talent wins the Lottery” is a slender comic conceit, and the rest of the book – the pages dealing with Des Pepperdine’s attempts to educate himself and to raise his baby girl – are too often swamped in a peculiarly Amisian mulch of familial sentimentality. (There is also a bewildering over-reliance on exclamation points, as in: “And guess who they ran into. Jon and Joel!” This is troubling, because it suggests that Amis’s command of tone – the most formidable weapon in his arsenal – is starting to slip.)
Lionel Asbo is a deeply strange book, full of trapped or thwarted energy. But there are still occasional flashes of the old Amis brilliance: “That afternoon the lake was minutely runnelled by the wind, like corduroy.” This is the sort of thing you read Amis for. So perhaps we shouldn’t write him off just yet.