With his 13th novel, Lionel Asbo: State Of England, Martin Amis proves that not all enfants terribles grow out of it. Having recently left his native England behind to move to America, Amis is only too pleased to deliver his disturbing prognosis on his ex-country in the story of an undeserving lottery winner, but the social forces that trigger his disdain don’t lead him to insightful study.
Lionel finds out about his £140 million lottery win while awaiting trial for starting a fistfight at his best friend’s wedding. Convinced to pay a civil settlement so he can be released, Lionel, a man so inured to breaking the law that he changes his surname to the abbreviation for a common criminal charge, is dubbed the “Lotto Lout” by the panting tabloid press, who dutifully follow him as he names his new country estate after his first jail and takes up with would-be model Threnody. Meanwhile, his nephew Des, for whom he was nominally responsible while in prison, determines to put himself through college and make a journalist’s honest living while keeping tabs on his volatile uncle and concealing a distasteful family secret. The state of Amis’ England, in short, is headed to hell in a handbasket carried by a pitbull owned by a topless Page 3 Girl, with a stop at the pub first—and the amoral Lionel is its king.
While cultivating the suspicion that Lionel may not be just criminally inclined, but actually a psychopath, Amis spills more ink on setpieces about how ludicrously unsuitable Lionel is for his new moneyed lifestyle, and glories in his tackiness. Where the strict bounds of class have fallen, the distinctions between the now-rich Lionel and his financial peers are confined to habits and language. Lionel seems so conscious of the rift that he exaggerates the differences he’s aware of, with occasionally comic results. Amis particularly luxuriates in capturing Lionel’s shifting pronunciation according to what he thinks a “tough” should sound like, even one drinking expensive champagne out of a pint glass.
Lionel embodies the UK’s fear of the council-house tough and obsession with manufactured celebrity, but for a while he is, unwittingly, prepared to give the country just what it wants for entertainment. Yet Amis’ concerns ring a little hollow the more he enjoys skewering both his unrefined protagonist and the frothing gums of the British press who love him, because Lionel Asbo employs some of the same excesses to similar effect. The sops who read about Lionel and their smugness about being better than him soaks into all of Amis’ characterizations as he dredges the same material that he finds so offensive. Even the feckless Des, who often reads as too saintly, is taken to task for forgiving Lionel, even though it allows him to lead a less turbulent life. Amis is never subtle in his disapproval of the whole British celebrity ecosystem, but the diffuseness of his objections and his own taste for cataloguing sins rather than rooting for their sources wafts over Lionel and everything around him without coming to an original point.