How did Martin Amis become so bad?

With Lionel Asbo: State of England, Amis has produced a truly terrible novel, dripping with snobbish contempt and written with a tin ear for detail.

Mitford Stitch

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As a book, Lionel Asbo: State of England is beautifully constructed. It is light enough to hurl without effort, yet still elicits a satisfying squeal from the fool who asked if you were enjoying the latest Martin Amis.

As a novel, it falls apart completely. Supposedly a satire on the State of England, it simply isn’t funny. Lionel Asbo is a story about one man and his nephew. Lionel is violent, vicious and stupid – and he doesn’t like schoolboys sleeping with his mother. His nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, is gentle, thoughtful and fiercely intelligent – and he happens to be sleeping with his own grandmother, Lionel’s mother. So we are left with the nail-biting scenario: will Lionel discover his own nephew is the schoolboy popping his mother? Or, indeed, will the idea of a 15-year-old so totally starved of affection he’s sleeping with his own grandmother ever make anyone laugh?

The answer is: possibly – if you think deprivation and incest on inner-city sink estates is inherently hilarious.

I read four pages. I put it down. I read another four pages. I put it down. I skimmed over five, and threw it away. And then had to go to retrieve it. Every single page drips with contempt.

The jokes centre around Desmond’s pathetic, poorly punctuated attempts to receive advice from a tabloid agony aunt on his predicament and Lionel’s failure to pronounce things properly. ‘Truck’, says Lionel. ‘Pronounced truc-kuh’, notes Amis. ‘(With a glottal stop on the terminal plosive).’

In passages the book is so bad it defies description. In addition to the running phonetics commentary, the dialogue is trite and the proliferation of exclamation marks is bewildering.

Eventually, Desmond manages to educate himself, leaves off sleeping with his gran, goes to university and begins a relationship with a girl called Dawn. And we get this charming little scene:

‘On August 2, 2011, Des and Dawn were informed that they’d both got Two Ones!
‘”Well, after all that graft, we’d’ve looked like bloody fools if we’d got Thirds.”‘
‘”Yeah, or even Desmonds”, said Desmond (a Desmond was a Two Two – after Desmond Tutu.)’

It doesn’t even get its period details accurate – which is all the more surprising since it is set in the present day. In the twenty-first century, would a kid of 15 really write letters to a newspaper agony aunt? And would a grandmother in her thirties really love the Beatles or the music of her own youth, rather than her author’s? Would Desmond’s girlfriend really look at her own baby and start talking about its skin colour in the following manner: ‘She takes a little more milk in her coffee than you do, doesn’t she Des?’ ‘Like that black-face singer Al Jolson!’

I had to look up Al Jolson on the internet. He died in 1950. Would someone in their early twenties really know who he was? Or think about whether their child looks more like a café latte than an espresso? All the details, on which Amis’ fiction used to thrive, are wrong.

In Money, John Self drove a Fiasco. It was a brilliant little satirical flicker that ran throughout the novel as Self’s life descended into chaos. Lionel Asbo drives a Venganza. It doesn’t sound like the name of a car but in Spanish it means ‘Revenge’, so it signals two things – Asbo is driven by a thirst for vengeance, and Martin Amis speaks better Spanish than you do.

Over the years, Amis has been accused of sexism, and I never really agreed. Characters such as Nicola Six in London Fields may have been a caricature – but so are most of the characters in Martin Amis novels. As Adam Mars Jones explained, in a far more mannered review than this one, ‘Amis doesn’t so much inhabit his characters as leave them to seethe like charged rods in a viscous bath of language.’ There are no viscous baths here, there’s just cruel, unpleasant jokes. Lionel’s girlfriend Threnody is a silicon-enhanced glamour model who writes poetry. Near the climax of the novel, her arse explodes. This is misogyny in its purest form. What has happened to Martin Amis? Why is an author who used to be so brilliant wasting his efforts on such punishing drivel?

Amis has often argued that artistic decline is part of the ageing process. ‘Getting old is the subtraction of your powers’, he explains. ‘Which very much goes for writing. And the writer in decline is a contribution of medical science – it didn’t used to come up, because they’re all dead. Dickens at 58, Shakespeare at 52, Jane Austen at 41. But now you have 80-year-old novelists. And it’s self-evident that the grasp and the gift erodes. I don’t see many exceptions to that rule.’

But Dostoevsky produced his first great work, The House of the Dead, at 40. He published The Brothers Karamazov, which must rank among the greatest novels ever written, shortly before he died, aged 59. Dostoevsky was at the height of his powers. Theodor Fontane only began writing novels aged 57. He published his masterpiece, Effi Briest, aged 75. And had Dickens and Shakespeare and Austen gone on to produce work in their eighties, would they have produced anything that demonstrated retardation in talent on a par with what Amis has managed with Lionel Asbo?

Many critics have described Amis’ current work as Dickensian, because it delves into the underclass and features a school called Squeers Free. But Dickens’ interest in society’s disadvantaged was sympathetic and rather sentimental, not sneering.

Lionel Asbo is downright misanthropic. It fails not because of Amis’ age but because of his attitude – to his subjects, his readers and anyone who suggests he’s not quite the writer he used to be.

Mitford Stitch is a freelance writer based in London Fields.

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