- Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis
Cape, 288 pp, £18.99, June 2012, ISBN 978 0 224 09620 1
To rate his achievement at its least, Martin Amis has been for upwards of 25 years the By Appointment purveyor of classic sentences to his generation. In Money (1984) he achieved something that was as much of a breakthrough for our insular literature as Bellow’s had been in The Adventures of Augie March (1953) for American writing, a manner electric, impure and unimpressed, except sometimes by itself, mixing refracted slang with swaggeringly artificial cadence. If it seems astonishing that Money is now nearly as old as Augie March was when Money itself was published, then the reason must be the aura that certain books take on, of seeming to inhabit the permanent present they have defined. These books stand out, even if you can see their flaws, sending a little pulse of shock not just into the future, producing wave after wave of imitators, but into the past, making recently viable styles seem to recede into distance.
It’s not a manner that appeals to everyone. Just as Amis once confessed (or boasted) that he stopped finding Madonna attractive when she went ‘hard-body’, so there are readers in good numbers who prefer something suppler in their sentences than articulated armour-plate and an almost arthropod vision of imaginative prose. Many of these disaffected readers are likely to be female. When Amis insisted on a bidding war for The Information, the last volume of his loose West London trilogy, prospective publishers examined his sales figures, which were lower than his reputation would have suggested. Women, who tend to buy more books than men, were tending to buy relatively few of these ones.
Women who had read London Fields (1989), the central panel of the triptych, with its many pages devoted to Nicola Six, a fictional woman who could have been extrapolated from ten thousand pages of pornography, might have thought twice about reading The Information. The obvious defence is that all the characters in Amis’s books are similarly caricatural, and there’s as much class libel in the portrait of Keith Talent as gender libel in the portrait of Nicola Six.
The narrator of Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine, published the same year as Money and certainly a more searching exploration of the same themes, pleads and wheedles to be allowed the mad freedom of his fantasy:
I insist that a fat cruel lesbian procuress disguised as a policewoman pushes my superb tightjeaned tightbloused superbitch through a door, locks it behind them, then drops the key in a bulging pocket of her denim skirt … if there is no lesbian like Big Momma in the world then there is no God either because there ought to be … there must be at least ONE lesbian like this in the world.
Perhaps that’s the way to look at Amis’s use of exaggeration also. There must be one baleful vixen, call her Nicola; one quintessence of low-life, call him Keith. Amis doesn’t so much inhabit his characters as leave them to seethe like charged rods in a viscous bath of language. The pleasures of reading Amis are electrolytic.
The upheaval over The Information seemed out of character, since up to that point Amis had been rather old-school in his attitude to the business aspect of the book business, taking little interest in such things as cover designs or marketing. Seeking a change of publisher was less like a fresh start than a sort of self-sabotage, since it risked the new book being separated from his back catalogue, especially damaging in the case of a trilogy. The Information was published by Flamingo in 1995, but Amis was back with Cape for Night Train in 1997 and has stayed there since.
Night Train has a female narrator, though that may not have been enough to reverse the gender imbalance in Amis’s readership. In interviews promoting The Pregnant Widow (2010) he went so far as to describe himself as a ‘gynocrat’, someone who would welcome the rule of women. This apparent submission retains an element of provocation, since he would naturally welcome the rule of women on his terms.
Amis’s preferred technique includes ventriloquism but also the refusal to ventriloquise, and often both elements show up in the same passage. In Time’s Arrow (1991) this becomes almost a formal principle, so that Tod Friendly’s life is narrated, from inside, by an entity distinct from the person who lived it.
The influenced ones (influencees, to be influenced by ‘the murderee’, a coinage from London Fields) are not just dazzled by technique but drawn by the mystique of a writer having no illusions. Amis’s persona skirts a narcissistic nihilism and strongly resists the adoption of positive values yet seeks to position itself against negativity. The goal is to inherit Bellow’s moral prestige (a writerly kinship he has often claimed) without writing in the tradition that earned it. If he’s not exactly a humanist he’s certainly an anti-anti-humanist, not to be counted among the angels but still offering a critique of the demonic.
Einstein’s Monsters (1987) marked a change, with its opening essay (introducing a group of stories in a variety of modes) about the impossible necessity of addressing the issue of nuclear weapons. From now on, Amis would not just be writing about the modern world but about the state of the modern world. It was clear from a shift in his rhetoric that this involved repositioning himself in the marketplace of ideas, almost a rebranding. He sidestepped a feminist identity politics that identified everything destructive with the male principle, everything nurturing with the female, with an identity politics of his own, and wrote as a father against the bomb.
Since all his instincts as a novelist are for distortion (purposeful rather than arbitrary distortion, but distortion still), the project of establishing and defending a moral perspective on history or society is either heroic or merely quixotic, likely to result in a long series of rather flashy own goals. In practice the movement within a passage of his non-fiction between general and personal (sometimes between the generalised and the hyper-personal) is rarely smooth and sometimes amounts to a disorienting lurch. It’s a problem, surprisingly, of tone – surprisingly, because tone-management in his fiction had seemed such a core strength, if that phrase doesn’t reek of the Pilates studio.
I’m thinking of the way that in his memoir Experience (2000) he made a link between themes of absent women in his writing and what happened to his cousin Lucy Partington, whose disappearance was explained many years later when her body was found under Fred West’s house in Gloucester. He builds to a climax: ‘For now he [Fred West] will get from me a one-sentence verdict … Here is the sentence. West was a sordid inadequate who was trained by his childhood to addict himself to the moment when impotence becomes prepotence.’ This is tonally overwrought, but reminiscent of social work in its hedged vocabulary, neither moralised nor unmoralised. All writers overrate the impact of writing, or else they would choose another line of work, but the fantasy here of sentencing someone with your sentences, someone whose suicide put him beyond the reach of worldly but not literary justice, seems extreme.
In Koba the Dread (2002), Amis’s book about Stalin, there was no familial link to be claimed with the dictator’s victims, but it included a tonally excruciating moment just the same. Again there is a bit of build-up: ‘I too, now, am obliged to confess – not to a lie but to a sin, and a chronic one.’ One evening when Amis was looking after his daughter Clio, aged six months, she started to cry, ‘a weeping fit that began at the outer limit of primordial despair, and then steadily escalated’. After an hour spent trying unsuccessfully to calm the baby, he phoned the nanny at her home. Her intervention was instantly successful. ‘“The sounds she was making,” I said unsmilingly to my wife on her return, “would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror. That’s why I cracked and called Caterina.”’
Crisis averted, then, everything back to normal. But … ‘Butyrki, I am afraid, is now established as one of my daughter’s chief nicknames, along with its diminutives, Butyrklet, the Butyrkster, the Butyrkstress, and so on … It isn’t right, is it? My youngest daughter has passed her second birthday, and her cries are not particularly horrifying any more, and I still call her Butyrki.’ Actually, it’s fine – or it was fine until you spread the word about it, in a book that sets out to establish a proportionate assessment of 20th-century atrocities, to retune the moral tin ear that allows us to dwell on Hitler’s horrors and soft-pedal Stalin’s.
Clearly Butyrkigate isn’t Watergate even on a submicroscopic scale. With Watergate the crime was amplified by the cover-up, whereas here it is the lack of a cover-up, of simple discretion, that constitutes it, the tiny crime of kitsch confiding and ersatz apology. Again, writing as a father (‘She had reminded me of the perfect equipoise of nausea and grief, as the parent contemplates inexpressible distress’) seems to license some very dodgy rhetorical moves.
Family reverberates more widely in Koba the Dread. It isn’t a historian’s biography of Stalin but a son and honorary nephew’s, in that it sets out to vindicate the strong anti-communist line held against fashionable opinion in the 1960s and after by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest. It also contains a letter from Amis to Christopher Hitchens, which is needling enough (‘Do you admire terror? I know you admire freedom’) in the rhetorical pressure it applies on an old friend to renounce Lenin, Trotsky and all their works, but ends by sending ‘fraternal love, as always’. Amis keeps his side of the fraternal bargain by dedicating Lionel Asbo to Hitchens.
It turned out, when the book was published, that Hitchens would pass up the opportunity to recant. He wrote a newspaper article in which he defended his position about the relative status as evil-doers of Hitler and Stalin. It was impossible altogether to dismiss the echoes of a playground tussle, with shouts of My infinity of misery is bigger than your infinity of misery! Yet this was also an almost nostalgic episode in the history of the literary dust-up, a debate on important matters of historical memory whose participants seemed genuinely pained to be at odds. For once the disputants’ claims of mutual respect, required by the form except at its most floridly bitchy, could be believed. These two veteran rhetorical snipers, well matched in sardonic invective, had no wish to have each other in their sights.
Perhaps Koba the Dread should be viewed as a sort of gravel-pit, marking the site where Amis excavated some of the material for his novel about Russia in the 20th century, House of Meetings (2006). There isn’t much in Amis’s output that can qualify as neglected, but House of Meetings is certainly a strong performance, superior to his other novel about living through atrocity, Time’s Arrow. The gimmick of the earlier book, telling a life story in strict reverse order, had a huge power which included the power to numb. House of Meetings doesn’t have a gimmick, and any historical-revisionist agenda is swallowed up in the task of writing something analogous to the novel about the Soviet era that Nabokov refused even to consider writing. Nabokov believed he had nothing to add after the unspecific indictments of totalitarianism in Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, and kept the Russia of his childhood as a huge memory museum, dissolving the country as a historical entity into a version of Zembla, for all practical purposes uninhabited. Extremity of material seemed to chasten some flashiness in Amis, and the theme of fraternal love-hate, which goes at least as far back as Success (1978), received its richest treatment.
If anything it was The Pregnant Widow, the successor to House of Meetings, that was greeted as a return to form, but as a reader who constitutionally enjoys Amis I found the whole enterprise baffling, from title and epigraph on. The idea that forms of social order have been fractured, so that the modern person will have to live through a desolate interregnum before any viable alternatives are available, stranded between the no longer and the not yet, is almost a commonplace. In fact Amis was trying to get beyond it as long ago as 1980, when he wrote (reviewing Joan Didion’s The White Album for this paper) that Yeats’s ‘“The Second Coming” was written half a century ago. The centre hasn’t been holding for some time now; actually the centre was never holding, and never will hold.’
It’s the specific image of the pregnant widow, quoted from Alexander Herzen, that seems so clumsy: ‘The departing world leaves behind it, not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.’ The image is poorly handled, botched as a literary figure: ‘the death of the one’ can’t apply to the widow, or else the child she is carrying will die also, but presumably refers back to the departing world, and what is ‘the other’ that will be born? Perhaps Amis has chosen an indifferent translation. But since the book is seeking to identify the moment at which everything went wrong, in the West, between men and women, you’d think that the author might notice that his chosen image for the crisis is full of miscellaneous patriarchal baggage. Herzen will have taken it for granted that an heir is male, that a widow has the barest fingerhold on civil rights. The notion that using women’s bodies as sources of vivid imagery is a bad habit, which tends to make women disappear at the very moment they’re invoked, wasn’t available to Herzen, but Amis certainly got that memo. No obligation to read it, of course, though it would show willing when he decided to write a novel about the shifting ground between men and women.
The Pregnant Widow certainly cried up its claims to be dramatising a cultural fissure, but I didn’t understand how it was supposed to work as a piece of novelistic machinery. I follow that intimate estrangements can be used rather eloquently to exemplify larger cultural movements, as long as hindsight is damped severely down and the scale of the whole thing kept small (as in On Chesil Beach), or alternatively on a larger canvas, with elements of the epic, tragic and grotesque, provided everything is modelled in three dimensions and the tension is kept consistent (as in American Pastoral). But here the anecdote and the moral, however often they were announced as mutually reinforcing, seemed to be on different tracks from the beginning of the book, different lines even, with no points in sight to make possible even a collision, let alone the smooth coupling intended.
Stylistically, the book seemed to promise a lighter manner. The character of Keith, who shares the author’s birthday, was announced on an early page as occupying ‘that much disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven’. The low-key phrasing, the wry tone – this seemed to promise that rare thing in Amis’s fiction, a mirror with a low distortion factor. But then one of Keith’s romantic competitors is introduced into the action, an Italian count, and, ‘guess what, Adriano was four foot ten inches tall.’ Adriano insists on setting himself physical challenges, to show that his small stature isn’t an issue, and suffers a number of absurd injuries. Distortion is back in full force, and Amis reverts to exaggeration and the grotesque, which are not for him ways of exploring dangerous subjects but rather places of safety and business as usual.
The Pregnant Widow, which announced itself as strongly autobiographical, would have been a good opportunity for stylistic recalibration, to discover if there was a market for Amis without the Amisisms. A distinctive style can be a trap, and a clean break is better than self-pastiche or self-parody. Writers, however identified with a particular way of going about their trade, can shed their skins. The lapse of time between Henry Green’s Living (1929) and Nothing (1950) is shorter than between Money and The Pregnant Widow, but the transformation in the texture of the prose is total, from clotted to syncopated conversational flow. Green’s late style is thinned out but has its own particular richness. If the style of The Pregnant Widow seemed thinner, it still made the same gestures. That’s the great disadvantage of mannerism. If your way of doing things is as distinctive as Amis’s (or El Greco’s, or Morrissey’s) then your best effects have more in common with your worst efforts than they do with anything else. When you’re in competition largely with yourself, no amount of stamina will help.
Satire requires distortion, which doesn’t mean that distortion necessarily produces satire. In a famous Monty Python sketch, a group of successful Yorkshiremen reminisce competitively about their deprived childhoods:
– There were 150 of us living in a shoebox in the middle of the road.
– Cardboard box?
– You were lucky. We lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank. We used to have to get up every morning at six o’clock, clean the newspaper, go to work down mill for 14 hours a day week in week out for sixpence a week. And when we got home, our dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!
– Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o’clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, work twenty hours a day at mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were lucky!
– Well of course we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox in the middle of the night, and lick the road clean with our tongues. We had to eat half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked 24 hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.
– Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing ‘Hallelujah’.
The exaggeration here isn’t an optional extra, since exaggeration is the topic. In Amis’s fiction exaggeration is often no more than a reflex, though a revealing one, since it testifies to such a fear of being middle of the road, of being less than extreme, of being left behind. In Lionel Asbo he offers a CV of Lionel’s early life: he was pronounced ‘uncontrollable’ at the age of 18 months and received his first Asbo shortly after turning three. Where does this fit on the Yorkshireman’s reminiscence scale? At the ‘hot gravel’ point? ‘Cold poison’ perhaps? Either way it’s beyond exaggeration, and there’s no novelistic territory beyond exaggeration. When satire becomes surrealistic it drops off the map of genre. Unlike other Amis characters (John Self, Keith Talent, Clint Smoker), the arch-lout Asbo doesn’t carry around a name whose oddity and associations he is forbidden by the rules of the novel that contains him from recognising. He changed his name on his 18th birthday to harmonise with the court order that is so much part of his history.
Amis describes the master bedroom in the flat in Avalon Tower shared by Asbo and his racially mixed nephew Des Pepperdine as ‘the size of a low-ceilinged squash court’. How is this an appropriate comparison, given that Asbo has never played squash in his life? Well, Forster does something of the sort in the opening scene of A Passage to India, when Aziz visits a mosque that is described, though no Western characters have yet been introduced, as resembling ‘an English parish church whose side has been taken out’. If Forster is to be allowed his parish church as a template for buildings across the world, Amis can hardly be denied the squash court as a unit of universal measurement. Forster doesn’t glory in the disjunctive effect, which either betrays the limitations of his imagination or teases the reader’s own assumed parochialism, but it’s there just the same.
As the novel begins Lionel is 21, his nephew Des 15. Des met his father just the once, aged seven, if you can call it meeting when the other person is unconscious on a bench, and lost his mother young. Lionel brings him up, standing in loco parentis (assuming that emotional involvement is no part of what a parent does), offering a workable role model as long as the polarity of every term (‘Do something useful. Steal a car’; ‘Go home and watch some decent porn’) is reversed. Amis doesn’t try to get inside Lionel’s mind, though he has some snooty-ish fun with diction:
Lionel pronounced ‘myth’ miff. Full possessive pronouns – your, their, my – still made guest appearances in his English, and he didn’t invariably defy grammatical number (they was, and so on). But his verbal prose and his accent were in steep decline. Until a couple of years ago, Lionel pronounced ‘Lionel’ Lionel. But these days he pronounced ‘Lionel’ Loyonel, or even Loyonoo.
The book’s centre of gravity is Des, present on the first page and the last, and providing more of a continuous moral perspective than Amis-readers are used to. It’s like being blindfolded and taken on a mystery tour but finding that the GPS has been reprogrammed to enunciate the names of streets.
This may also be the first Amis novel with a consistently developed plot. Des is having an affair with an older woman, obviously an older woman – she’d have to be since she’s his grandmother. He writes to various tabloid agony aunts hoping to be told this is normal. They don’t oblige, but in context this incest is not only normal but virtually idyllic. In degraded Diston, a borough that makes Tower Hamlets seem like Chelsea, the generations follow each other so quickly they threaten to overtake. A mother at 12 and a granny at 24, Grace Pepperdine is now 39. She is tender and romantic, qualities locally in short supply that appeal strongly to the orphaned Des.
Amis has made Asbo represent every hateful underclass allegation in concentrated form, as if he was grown in a petri dish from a raging red-top headline. But if the uncle concentrates the taint of every poison available, the nephew is mysteriously immune, a metaphysical changeling, class traitor from the egg, wanting only education, honest employment, conversation, fair dealings, the life of the mind and monogamy. Not with granny Grace, of course: he soon outgrows that. It was the tenderness he liked, though Lionel violently objected (objected with violence) when he heard rumours that his mother was entertaining schoolboys. For semi-cogent reasons (having been brought up in a large household that testified to his mother’s inability to say no), Lionel has an obsession with enforcing the vow of chastity he has taken on Grace’s behalf. If he ever finds out about Des’s involvement with her, the writing will be on the wall, along with some blood and some bone marrow.
But why would he find out? Because Amis now contrives for Grace a shortcut to senility. This is Diston, after all, ‘with its gravid primary-schoolers and toothless hoodies, its wheezing twenty-year-olds, arthritic thirty-year-olds, crippled forty-year-olds, demented fifty-year-olds and non-existent sixty-year-olds’. Grace’s form of Alzheimer’s disease means that after a period of dementia in which her rare coherent utterances are cryptic (in the technical sense that they take the form of riddling crossword clues) she gets her memory back, with an emphasis on sexual recall and strict chronological order, meaning that it’s only a matter of time before she spills the beans about the incest.
This plot device gives forward motion to the narrative. Suspense of this sort is often compared to waiting for the other shoe to drop, though here it’s closer to waiting for the first shoe to drop, even if there’s a prospect of the second one following immediately, possibly with a severed foot still in it. How will Lionel react if he finds out? An earlier act of revenge has suggested that his responses in such circumstances have a touch of Jacobean drama, possibly his only affinity with high culture.
Meanwhile Lionel, who never plays the lottery, not quite on principle but instinctively feeling that it’s a mug’s game (in Fielding’s assessment, a tax on fools), nevertheless wins £140 million. He stole someone’s form out of pure spite, and Des filled it in.
There are times when a satirist has his cards handed to him by a single event (Tom Lehrer interpreted Kissinger’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize as a virtual P45), others when it’s more a matter of being outgunned by reality on a wide front. It’s just bad luck that the publication of Lionel Asbo happens to coincide with the replacement of the eponymous order, which seemed such a secure pillar or many-dog-critiqued lamppost of modern British governance, by other mechanisms of social control. The opportunities that Diston Library offers for Des to slake his thirst for enlightenment, though, seem like wishful thinking, even in 2006 when the book starts.
To get an idea of what Amis is up against, in terms of daily life reaching us effectively pre-satirised, it’s worth looking at the 2003 media coverage of Michael Carroll, a lotto lout who seems to have chosen the role of John the Baptist to Amis’s rough beast of incarnate chavhood. Carroll, twenty, banned from driving, turned the grounds of his Norfolk villa into a 24-hour race track for old cars. He let off fireworks and distress flares to annoy his neighbours. Told by ITV’s Jonathan Maitland of their complaints, he replied: ‘It wasn’t their fault when their mums dropped them on their heads when they was babies.’ He said his best buy since his win was an old Orion. It cost only £500 but had since had the benefit of extras to the tune of £16,000. He didn’t welcome freeloaders, handing the Sun its headline: ‘If anyone was nice to me ’cos of my £10m Lotto winnings … I’d stab ’em.’
The details of Lionel Asbo’s world are only fitfully more vivid than this. Some of them seem plain wrong. Those ‘lone middle-aged men with their barley wines’ watching the strip show at the Lady Godiva: bearing in mind that ‘middle-aged’ means the author’s age or younger, is that really what they’re drinking? Stranger drinks have survived in the marketplace, either by defiant unwholesomeness (Irn-Bru) or energetic rebranding (Lucozade). So perhaps I’ve just missed the vogue. But those two empty milk bottles outside Grace’s empty flat, the ones that ‘gleamed filmily on the doorstep’ – isn’t that a trick of the light? You can still get milk delivered in bottles in some areas, but just the posh ones, where nostalgia can be allowed to overrule brute economics.
The same sense of lostness clings to social attitudes. When Des finds a girlfriend, Dawn, the only problem is her racist father, Horace. He’s not just a racist but a throwback of a racist: ‘Your brain’s smaller and a different shape. Whilst hers is normal, yours is closer to a primate’s.’ In the allotment of nasty social attitudes this contorted purple tuber must count as a heritage potato, miraculously re-established from a seed bank. Grace, born 1967 or so, is a lifelong Beatlemaniac (and a drinker of Dubonnet). Well, that’s possible, though it seems convenient for a warmly regarded character to favour the music of Amis’s own youth. The only more recent popular music to feature is the Baha Men’s ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’, varied and inverted (who let the dogs in?) for all four of the section epigraphs. Des bears no imprint whatever of youth culture, which seems a greater failure of imagination. The whole point of including a positive portrait of a racially mixed, thoroughly unmixed-up young person from an underprivileged background must be to disown a politics that writes off any possible aspiration for the deprived, but it can’t be done by having him live in a self-sustaining bubble of high culture and ethics. Dawn is literate, wholesome (a characteristic she takes to the extreme of virginity) and insipid. Their byplay as a couple soon becomes twee.
To skimp on the details of what you hate, to be drawn mistily to what you find sympathetic – this is hardly the CV of a satirist. It’s closer to a letter of resignation. If this is Amis’s final dismissive visit to old territory, conducted in a spirit of sod-you-all, then it goes to show he’s long gone.
There are sentences here that for all their strenuousness remain beige: ‘The traffic, seeming to shrug something off, rolled forward into the ease and freedom, the innocuous proficiency, of a London summer, beneath a flattering sky.’ The atmosphere evoked is neutral, and neutrality has never been an option for Amis. More damagingly, there are word choices or familiar images where the awoken echo is louder than the sound made in the present. Des, for instance, briefly consults internet pornography as instructed, but finds practically everything but solo girls tastefully undressing ‘gladiatorial’. The yoking of pornography with mortal combat was so much richer an idea in an article Amis wrote for the Observer in 2001, giving him a magnificent concluding passage: ‘No, Chloe, you are not a prostitute, not quite. Prostitution is the oldest profession. And porno is the newest profession. You are more like a gladiator: a contemporary gladiator. Of course, the gladiators were slaves – but some of them won their freedom. And you, I think, will win yours.’ (It’s only on rereading that this discloses a certain sly appropriation of the imperial role, as if the author’s own thumb would be passing the final judgment of freedom or death.)
At one point, Lionel explains contemporary politics in terms that make his nephew think of a pub brawl: ‘Des entertained the image of a planet-sized Hobgoblin at 12 o’clock on a Friday night. This was the place called World.’ The conceit seems pale when set beside the moment in ‘Bujak and the Strong Force’ in Einstein’s Monsters when the milquetoast narrator visualises nuclear superpower stalemate in similar terms, if you allow for the difference in licensing hours: ‘A dedicated follower of fear, I always thought that the fat brute and the big bastard would maintain their standoff: they know that if one fist is raised then the whole pub comes down anyway. Not a masterpiece of reassurance, I agree – not at ten fifty-five on a Saturday night, with the drink still coming.’
Amis has a fondness for subtitles, sometimes giving them to stories as well as books (the subtitle of ‘Bujak and the Strong Force’ is ‘God’s Dice’). Lionel Asbo has one: ‘State of England’. The phrase appears only once, exchanged between Des and Dawn to mean no more than ‘You couldn’t make it up.’ Other Amis subtitles tend to be stern – ‘Laughter and the Twenty Million’ for Koba the Dread, ‘Inside History’ for The Pregnant Widow, ‘The Nature of the Offence’ for Time’s Arrow. ‘State of England’ seems a little hangdog, as if this was an earlier title demoted when it proved unfit for purpose.
‘State of England’, on the other hand, a story published in the New Yorker in 1996 and reprinted in Heavy Water (1998), is masterly, outranking to my mind pretty much everything else Amis has done. It’s not just that the details are convincing, the little wisp of plot well managed and the humour properly wild. Big Mal, a chancer cut from the same shiny cloth as Keith Talent, turns up to his nine-year-old son’s sports day and ends up competing in the father’s race. He’s the most humanised of all Amis’s grotesques, and real feeling shows up, against the grain. Of course it’s easier to elaborate detail when you’re writing about someone in your age group (Big Mal turns 45 in the course of the story, making him very much a contemporary), but there’s more to it than that.
Amis has always paid attention to milestones and rites of passage. It’s a rare interview when he doesn’t refer to what other writers his age have or have not accomplished, but the feeling extends beyond the literary. When he writes as a father, the results are often very off-key, but not here, and although he has never acquired a taste for vulnerability he’s strongly attuned to failure. There’s a walk-on part for a Mal in Lionel Asbo, Mal MacManaman, part of Lionel’s security detail, but he’s not a carry-over, or at least I hope not. Lionel Asbo the book and Lionel Asbo the character would have been stronger if he had been allowed to be a parent, instead of Des’s ‘anti-dad or counterfather’. Even the worst father in Amis’s world has a certain weight denied to the childless.
Of course ‘Lionel Asbo’ is overwritten – it’s by Martin Amis! The problem is that it’s under-overwritten. And there it is, the voice in a generation’s ear, charming without charm, insistently dazzling, milking the paradoxes until their teats are sore and they have no more nourishment to give. It’s easy to write Amislike sentences, hard to write good ones, and there are signs that Amis feels this too.
Perhaps he should pay more attention to the influencees. This is from Jon Canter’s wonderful Worth, published in 2011 by Cape (which makes them stablemates):
Stone took it personally. Many Londoners did. He saw my quitting the agency to move to the country as an attack on him. And not just him. He told me his house was a walk away from Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Thai, Italian, Spanish, French and Mexican restaurants, as if by leaving the city I was not only betraying him but the restaurateurs of many nations.
‘And what about the Geffrye Museum?’ The Geffrye Museum, I learned, was also a walk away: it housed a brilliant re-creation of period living rooms, from 1600 to now. Then he paused before adding: ‘Apparently.’ Stone had never been to the Geffrye Museum. But it was there.
‘I can go to it any fucking time I like,’ he said, with alarming self-loathing. (It was well known, throughout the building, that since the breakdown of his re-relationship with his first girlfriend, Stone had started drinking heavily. How else would he drink? The man had no lightness in him.) Didn’t I see that the presence of the museum, and the presence in the capital of a thousand places like it, amounted not just to a quality of life but a quantity of life? He allowed himself a little smile of self-satisfaction. Then he wrote down ‘quantity of life’ on the pad in front of him. He was Creative Director, after all, and he’d just created.
Hard to argue that this could be written without the permeative reach, the pan-osmosis of Martin Amis. But if some of the chords are from the Martin Amis Songbook, doesn’t the melody breathe and float? The exaggeration is controlled, almost demure, the texture light, the movement strong. Perhaps it’s only logical that there should only be one person who can’t learn from Martin Amis.