This is satire, and it bites hard. “Lionel ASBO” ( his surname stands for Anti-Social Behaviour Order, which was placed on him numerous times) is possibly the nastiest, least likeable, most unlikely to improve, most threatening, most hate-filled and saddest character ever created. He is a masterpiece of degeneracy, violence and perversion. Yet, at heart, he knows it. And it kills him. This novel caricatures today’s England, and I got the horrible suspicion that the whole thing is plausible, possible and not very far from the truth.
In Julian Barnes’ England, England (1998) the author mocks the system by describing a dystopian England where everything has gone mad and become ridiculous. People get the idea of replicating England (floppy fries, tea, the royal family, luke-warm beer, drizzle, etc.) in a theme park on the Isle of Wight, and eventually this becomes an independent state and part of the European Union, while the real England declines to an almost medieval condition. It’s witty, clever, and not very depressing. But not so in Lionel ASBO.
One innocent and a cast of crazies
In Lionel ASBO, England is overrun by criminals and perverts, and anyone nice and normal runs the risk of being harmed. “Des Pepperdine”, Lionel’s nephew, is like “Alex (DeLarge)” of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 A Clockwork Orange – he is an innocent whom society, and his uncle, try to brainwash and pervert. Unlike Alex’s downfall though, it doesn’t work. He visits the library, goes to university and does normal things. (Except that for that incident with his grandma.) His uncle is the Great Perverter, who teaches him, for instance, to feed his dogs bottles of Tabasco chili sauce and raw meat to make them properly crazy.
Lionel puts Grandma – his own mother – in a “care facility” because she is all used up by the time she is in her thirties, and losing her mind. Then Lionel wins around 139 million pounds in the lottery, and he is wealthy beyond reason. He can do what he likes. And what does an illiterate habitual criminal want to do? Good question. It involves Lionel’s crazy pittbulls, his girlfriend called “Threnody” (meaning a lament), murder, insanity and celebrity.
The pitbulls that sound like they are saying “Fuckoff!” when they bark are an important element, and the different parts of the story are introduced by increasingly desperate and incoherent plays on the question: “Who let the dogs in? Who? Who?” (perhaps an intentional reference to Who let the dogs out? (who, who, who) by the Baha Men, 2000?)
This is a terrible England, where no-one would want to live. At times I thought it must be science fiction, set somewhere in the future, but no, this is England today, as Amis sees it, surrealistically. This is not amusing, like the dystopian but silly France lightly caricatured by John Steinbeck in The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957). There the main character is a likeable, even heroic Frenchman who somehow, through inverted logic and innate Frenchness, manages to save his country, marriage and lifestyle.
A hellhole of an England
The England created by Amis is a hell-hole. Is it too much, too fierce, too unremittingly noir? Perhaps. But there are moments when Amis lightens up makes Lionel realize his limitations, depicting him momentarily as an object of pity and shame:
“The champagne arrived in its steel bucket. Lionel calmly compressed The Morning Lark between his knees and said, ‘Got a bigger glass? You know, like a beer mug.’ Lionel grimly monitored the waiter’s movements. ‘…Yeah, that’ll do. Fill her up, boy.’ Then it started happening. For just half a minute or so, Lionel’s mind became a vertiginous succession of false bottoms, of snapping trapdoors…Champagne in a beer mug? Are you a cunt?”
The more bleakly determined Lionel is to do all the things he thinks will buy him happiness, the more miserable he gets, until he prefers the local jail to any castle or hotel. I’m not sure what Amis wants to say about the British underclass, the common yobbos into whom he stabs his literary stiletto repeatedly in this book.
It makes for a disturbing read, leaving a nasty taste in the mouth, like you’ve had too much chili, and finally you are unable to get those damn chili-fed dogs that bark “Fuckoff!” out of your head. What an image to be stuck with.
UPDATE: Apr. 11, 2018
Note that the ASBO, Anti-Social Behaviour Order, which gave “Lionel” his name and got him into prison more often than most, no longer exists in the United Kingdom. It was replaced in 2014 – a year after Martin Amis’ book appeared, with the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 (c. 12) an Act which greatly expanded law enforcement powers in addressing anti-social behaviour. The Act replaced anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), the primary civil order in the United Kingdom since 1998, with criminal behaviour orders. The focus of the Act was to streamline the tools and powers available to frontline agencies in dealing with anti-social behaviour. Previously there had been 19 different powers, but these were reduced to a base of 6. They are: Civil Injunction, Criminal behaviour order, Dispersal powers, Community Protection Notices and Orders, Public Space Protection Order, Closure of Premises.
About the author
- Martin Louis Amis (25 August 1949) is a British novelist. His best-known novels are Money (1984) and London Fields (1989). He has received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his memoir Experience and has been listed for the Booker Prize twice to date (shortlisted in 1991 for Time’s Arrow and long-listed in 2003 for Yellow Dog). Amis served as the Professor of Creative Writing at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester until 2011. The Times named him in 2008 as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.