The pavement appears moist from a sudden rainstorm. Has Amis been drenched in the downpour on his way to the photo-shoot? Is that expensive grey suit peppered with damp? The trademark tousled mane weighted by droplets, only recently — and impatiently — combed aside before he sits at a cafe table and glances into the melee? Behind him having survived the withering coruscation of his writerly stare a black family mum pulling a pushchair, dad in 50s-style hat and raincoat, toddler clutching his hand, struggling to keep up.
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His output in the first few years of this century, particularly the career lows of Yellow Dog and his books on Stalin and terrorism, saw him firmly established as the embarrassing uncle of English letters — well past his prime, creepy, grandiose, given to unhinged outbursts about "the age of horrorism" and "the worldflash of a coming future".
But in recent years, things have unmistakably looked up: his last novel The Pregnant Widow was his best since the glory years of the s; Amis the journalist seems to have wisely given up trying to pass himself off as a clash-of-civilisations man, in favour of writing excellent criticism again. Unfortunately, the epigraph of his new novel Lionel Asbo — about a yob who wins the lottery — suggests a serious relapse: Who let the dogs in?
Who let the dogs in? For our more high-minded readers: this is a riff on the soca anthem "Who Let the Dogs Out? And so it turns out. It is, in many ways, an eccentrically impressive performance. It was surprising that, in the acknowledgments to The Pregnant Widow, Amis thanked Jane Austen for the "penetrating sanity" she had imparted to the English novel.
And not just because people usually thank their spouse and agent, rather than major canonical figures he also thanked Shakespeare and Ted Hughes. It was surprising because sanity has not been the prevailing mood of his big novels since, say, London Fields Where Ian McEwan, the yin to his yang, has gone from foetid psychosexuality and high-temperature visions to stately realism and breezy comedy, Amis has gone in the opposite direction. The case against the novels that followed London Fields is now well established.
Amis, it is often said, has mistaken the nature of his talent. He was a brilliant comic novelist, but he felt compelled to take on ever more high-flown subjects: the Holocaust, the gulag, the cosmos, the deepest recesses of the human psyche. As with Woody Allen, people tend to prefer his early, funny ones. Julie Burchill: "If Martin Amis had stuck to writing about smoking, shagging and snooker he might have been the next Nick Hornby. It sometimes seems that the genre does not exist for what Amis wants to write.
He could have been a terrific novelist, poet, journalist and critic. Instead, he jams everything into the novels: editorialising, lyric poetry, even lectures on literary history. Typically, a thin comedy plot collides with dark, fevered visions, along with some deeply emotional, transparently autobiographical material.
The resulting mess is then held together with a basic suspense hook. We are kept waiting for hundreds of pages for a heavily flagged murder or sexual betrayal or — in the case of the new book — to find out who let the dogs in. Lionel Asbo is another pornotheological farce. Lionel Asbo is a "brutally generic" yob. He looks a bit like Wayne Rooney: "the slab-like body, the full lump of the face, the tight-shaved crown with its tawny stubble".
A debt collector, he lives in a tower in the London Borough of Diston a cross between Dalston and dystopia? But, this being a Martin Amis novel, everything has to be much weirder than that. He seems very remote from the world he describes. The details are persistently wrong in jarring ways: the lottery is played by post; ageing single mums are addicted to the Telegraph cryptic crossword. The heightened style, as ever, brings its own oddities. But then the novel is not realistic, even by satirical standards.
Amis seems to be writing a romance, in the late Shakespearean sense. Lionel has a nephew, a half-Trinidadian orphan named Desmond Pepperdine. We know that he has full authorial approval, not least because — not unlike Amis — he is an etymology pedant and a usage bore, with a near-religious reverence for the Concise Oxford Dictionary.
The stranger Lionel Asbo gets, the less it seems like a convincing indictment of England today — and the more it seems that Amis should have a nice lie down in a darkened room. But there are plenty of consolations: the poetic fragments the "white-van sky of London" ; the passing scraps of the saner novels Amis might have written. And not just these. In general, Amis only gets really interested in one character per novel usually the Amis surrogate.
Like Keith Talent from London Fields, he creates his own comic reality, semi-detached from the one the rest of us live in. He speaks like no one on earth: "you never give them they Tabasco", he often complains. Yet you come to believe him, to be slightly scared of him, even to sympathise with his predicament. It is basically incoherent.
Fortune Smiles on Toxic Terrain
His output in the first few years of this century, particularly the career lows of Yellow Dog and his books on Stalin and terrorism, saw him firmly established as the embarrassing uncle of English letters — well past his prime, creepy, grandiose, given to unhinged outbursts about "the age of horrorism" and "the worldflash of a coming future". But in recent years, things have unmistakably looked up: his last novel The Pregnant Widow was his best since the glory years of the s; Amis the journalist seems to have wisely given up trying to pass himself off as a clash-of-civilisations man, in favour of writing excellent criticism again. Unfortunately, the epigraph of his new novel Lionel Asbo — about a yob who wins the lottery — suggests a serious relapse: Who let the dogs in? Who let the dogs in? For our more high-minded readers: this is a riff on the soca anthem "Who Let the Dogs Out? And so it turns out.
Lionel Asbo: State of England
By Michiko Kakutani Aug. Its hilariously awful hero, John Self, is an uncanny harbinger of the willful vulgarians who would gain even more ascendancies in the reality-show, greed-is-great era of the 21st century. Amis tries to flesh out Lionel with lots of details. Even more puzzling is that he seemingly wants us to think of Lionel as an outrageous and original character when so many of his antics feel like imitations of cartoon movie villains, or rude boys from the tabloids. Lionel suspects his randy mother has been having it off with a teenager, and has vowed to get even with whomever that might be. Des eventually falls in love with a girl more his own age — a pretty blonde named Dawn, with whom he will have a beautiful baby named Cilla. As for Lionel, he wins the lottery, and is suddenly an extremely wealthy man.
Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis – review
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