The greatest writers never write the same book twice. Lesser writers write the same book many times. Martin Amis is caught between these two positions, as a fine writer who makes recurrent but unsuccessful attempts to break out into a new vein, and so become a genuinely great writer.
Lionel Asbo embodies a type of English lower-class youth — criminal, violent (yet also prone to bouts of sentimentality), unreflective, habitually saturated with alcohol (yet rarely incapacitated by drink), addicted to the lowest and harshest pleasures, blindly devoted to the barbarous justice of retaliation, on principle estranged from anything gentle, subtle or humane:
Out in the great world city, there were hundreds of thousands of young men who looked pretty much like Lionel Asbo. In certain lights and settings he resembled, some said, the England and Manchester United prodigy, striker Wayne Rooney: not exceptionally tall, and not fat, but exceptionally broad and exceptionally deep . . .
Above all Lionel and his type are people on whom life is wasted because they are determined never to profit from experience. As Lionel himself says, in the course of the riotous best man’s speech he delivers at the wedding of his lifelong friend and petty criminal colleague, Marlon Welkway: “I was more headstrong. I wouldn’t learn. For me, for me that’s a point of principle. Never learn.“
Lionel’s imperviousness to experience is tested by a massive lottery win. Almost by accident, he receives £139,999,999.50. This is Great Expectations, but with Magwitch swapping places with Pip. Suddenly Lionel’s world is thronged with what in advertisements we are often told are the “finest things in life”, but which (it becomes clear) are equally at home in an existence of abject impoverishment. For, heroic in his unswerving devotion to coarseness, Lionel emerges triumphant from this temptation to change his life for the better. Now astonishingly rich, he duplicates the immiserated life he had led in the brutal suburb of Diston, but with different materials: Dom Perignon, rather than Cobra lager; expensive restaurants, rather than KFC; Bentleys and Ferraris rather than his soot-smeared white van. Instead of running a sideline as a receiver of stolen goods, he now employs teams of rapacious “investment advisers” to enlarge his wealth. He buys a country house, and renames it Wormwood Scrubs after his favourite prison, the prison where he feels most at home. Lionel likes prison, because, as he says many times in the course of the novel, you know where you are in prison. Whether or not Lionel is actually “inside”, in another sense he is perpetually imprisoned — imprisoned by the sordid imperatives that govern his life.
Around the linear narrative of Lionel’s unswervingness Amis braids a contrasting story. Where Lionel is determined not to learn, his nephew Des has an eagerness to learn — an eagerness he shares with Dawn, a girl he meets when being interviewed for university. Implicit here is an anti-nurture argument. Des shares exactly the same environment (indeed, even the same flat) as Lionel. But notwithstanding their surroundings Des and Dawn are able to find genuine, solid contentment. They marry, and have a delightful baby, Cilla. One senses the novelist quarrelling with the most notorious axiom of his godfather. Philip Larkin is drawn into the world of Lionel Asbo when Marlon Welkway and Gina Drago decide to have “a Whitsun wedding”. But Amis’s diptych of Lionel and Des whispers the un-Larkinian possibilities that they need not fuck you up, your Mum and Dad; and, furthermore, that man need not hand on misery to man. This is a rebuttal of that bien-pensant extenuation of the “state of England” which attributes all our discontents to environment. As Lionel shows, the Robinson Crusoes of our recidivist class create their own environment, and what is more tirelessly recreate it wherever they go.
The formal architecture of Lionel Asbo recalls Amis’s earlier novel about the disparate trajectories followed by a pair of central characters, Success. Other characters and themes from the back-catalogue make cameo appearances: for instance, Lionel’s laughable girlfriend, Threnody, is a close relative of Money‘s Vron. These recursive moments touch on the real interest of Lionel Asbo, which is nothing to do with its analysis of the “state of England”, but rather its hints about a particular kind of writerly malaise. Writers can be blocked by not being able to write at all, or (more cruelly) by not being able to write the kind of book they would like to write. Amis is an author trapped in a style in which it is impossible to say the things he now wishes to say. Laudably committed to the humane values and common happiness of Des and Dawn, Amis is unable to write about them in a way that sustains our interest. Our aspirational author is both Des and Lionel: eager to break through and do better, but also addicted to what holds him back.