Lionel Asbo: State of England – Martin Amis

I have a strange feeling I already wrote a review of this book, but I cannot find it anywhere. I write some reviews by hand first, but it’s not in any of my notebooks. It’s not in WordPress and I don’t have it saved as word doc anywhere. Still, in my mind, I feel like I’ve written about this book before. Weird.

And so is the book. This was my second Martin Amis book, London Fields the first. I cannot ay I’m a fan of his style, but it somehow always makes me interested enough for me to finish the book.

This time we have a book about the lower ends of English society. Lionel Asbo, changed his name to Asbo because he had so many of them (ASBO is an anti-social behavior order in the UK). The book revolves around Lionel, Desmon, his nephew, and Lionel’s mother. ‘As we know, Desmond Pepperdine was fifteen. Grace Pepperdine, who had led a very demanding life and borne many, many children, was a reasonably presentable thirty-nine. Lionel Asbo was a heavily weathered twenty-one.’

Lionel is a violent thug, no other way to describe him. He started his long list of offenses when he was three years old and only developed from there. Mostly involved in debt collection, he spends his time 50-50 between the small flat in Diston and prison. Desmond is a son of Lionel’s dead sister, living with his uncle and miraculously resisting his influence. At the age of fifteen though, he cannot resist Lionel’s mother, his own grandmother. An event that will haunt him his entire life.

The book spans over ten years. Lionel being in and out of prison, his outbursts always shocking, his Pitbulls always psychotic and kept in the balcony. But one time while in prison, by chance Lionel becomes an owner of a lottery ticket, a winning one at that. When he leaves prison his funds are unlimited, but also he becomes a celebrity. All of that is great until it’s too much. Lionel becomes even viler and more unhinged, his street smarts apparently very applicable to business, his money multiplies itself.

Desmond meanwhile starts studying, meets Dawn, falls in love, and still lives with her in the old apartment in Diston, where Lionel still keeps one room locked for himself. Life seems to start getting normal for Des, the only thing that can happen is his secret teenage affair coming to light. That’s one thing that would make Lionel turn fair and square against him.

The book is a satire of the lower classes in the UK. It is harsh, brash, loud, and clearly written by someone who has never been in a council estate (I haven’t been either). So yes, it is sometimes tone-deaf and out of touch, but on the other hand, all this exaggeration is hilarious and very, very scary.

I read it and liked it, but I know the opinions are very divided and it certainly is not considered one of Amis’ best novels. It is artificial, but why should it be real? It’s fiction, hopefully. It is slightly crazy, but why not? The world we live in is not entirely balanced either. It is mean, yes. You could say that it is mean and unjust, but then why should it be nice, moral, and just? It challenges the way we perceive, generalize and discriminate against people. It asks you: what gives you the right to feel superior?

Overall, I think it may be a challenging read for many people, it is brash and violent, loud and unhinged, offensive and not objective. It may also lack the saving grace of genius, the thing that makes all the rest forgivable. But still, it pushes you in unexpected ways.

Do you like Martin Amis’ writing? What’s your favorite and least favorite book of his?

Violetta Kaszubowska 

One thought on “Lionel Asbo: State of England – Martin Amis

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