A few years ago Ben Elton, he of 1980’s stand up fame, wrote a series of zeitgeist novels, each focussing on a different aspect of popular culture – Big Brother, (the TV programme, not the character in 1984), Friends Reunited, the effect of Internet porn and violence on people’s behaviour, etc. These were all fairly lightweight and disposable, and the social/political commentary was mainly intended to provide humour rather than change minds.
“Lionel Asbo” is the novel about the poverty of working class culture that Elton wisely never dared to write. There isn’t a cliche about working class life that Amis doesn’t wildly embrace. His characters avoid any hint of subtlety. Cardboard cutouts would be giving them depth and nuance they don’t ever approach. I was reminded of “Only Fools and Horses” rewritten as torture porn.
Amis’s obsessive dislike of working class people is given full and free range here – this is a shout of hatred at the underclass of which Amis is clearly afraid. Lionel Asbo is indeed a psychopathically scary figure, capable of extremes of brutality. But his world is equally brutal and atavistic, devoid of any redeeming feature or figure, save the single exception of the pathetic Desmond, who responds to every racist barb thrown his way with a shrug.
I am struggling to find a single positive thing about this novel. Yes, I suppose some of the writing is not bad, but that is a bit like commenting on the lighting in a video nasty. The laziness of the plotting and characterisation is such that if this novel had not been written by Martin Amis I can’t imagine it would have ever been considered for publication. Some critics have kindly assumed Amis is aiming for over the top satire of our celebrity, money obsessed culture. While that may have been the original intention, comparisons with any other form of satire quickly expose this as clumsy and ineffective. I did read to the end, partly out of some kind of morbid fascination. I wanted to know if Amis would have the guts to follow through on the plot lines he had been signalling wildly for most of the second half of the novel – he didn’t, which is probably just as well, but by then I was long past caring. I am not going to spend any more time listing the many things that are wrong with this novel, when I really can’t get past the class hatred.
If you think working class people are disgusting pigs with no feeling, no limits, no taste, no redeeming features whatsoever, this is the novel for you. I need a shower.