UPDATE: Martin Amis’s appearance at Books & Books has been canceled today due to Tropical Storm Isaac. Whether the event will be rescheduled is unclear.
Martin Amis is a classist—at least that’s what many have been saying in reference to his latest book Lionel Asbo: The State of England. Taking the book at face value, one can understand why people would say this. The title character is a poor, ignorant, possible psychopath, who’s cast in a very unflattering light in an over-the-top rags-to-riches story. Taking a closer look, however, I would argue that Amis is not so much making fun of the lower class, but rather of the gawking public that spans all classes and races.
Lionel Asbo is the definition of a thug. His criminal activities began at 2 years old, and never abated. His pride in his life “achievements” are demonstrated by the surname he gave himself, which stands for Anti-Social Behaviour Disorder. Perhaps the one good thing Lionel has done in his life is adopt his nephew Desmond after his mother died—even if Lionel’s parental skills are questionable. His advice tends to focus on things such as what porn is best and what type of weapon Desmond should carry around after dark.
While there is little to like about Lionel, Desmond is lovable protagonist who only has one flaw. That flaw is pretty disturbing though—he’s, as the British might say, shagging his grandmother Grace. That’s the first fact we learn in the story and the ridiculousness of this premise is a sign of things to come—in a good way, because even if Amis is a classist, he is pretty damn funny.
Desmond, whose incestuous affair ends not by his own doing but by his grandmother’s preference for another younger man, has spent much of his life defending his uncle’s actions, both in and out of court. He struggles with the guilt of knowing that his uncle most likely murdered his grandmother’s other young lover. He finds solace in schoolwork and eventually accomplishes what no one else in his family has—admittance into university. It is there that Desmond meets and falls in love with the beautiful Dawn, herself a poor student. Dawn faces her own family problems, as her racist father has major issues with her relationship with Desmond, who is mixed-race. Yet, still the young couple’s love and determination to succeed, is enough to make them happy.
Their world is rocked when Lionel wins $340 million in the lottery. Lionel does exactly what can be expected of a lifelong criminal who has never had any money. He spends his money on liquor, drugs, gambling, and women. He gets kicked out of hotels. He beats up members of the press. All the while England watches in horror. They may detest him and his values but, much like a bad reality show, they can’t look away. When Lionel couples up with the sexy, publicity-savvy poetess, the topless model “Threnody” (yes, those quotes are part of her name), the public has a change of heart. With the help of “Threnody”, Lionel almost convinces everyone he’s an intelligent, respectable human being. Fans follow the couple’s ups and downs with the fascination associated with Tom-Kat or Brangelina. No love exists between Lionel and “Threnody” but that’s okay because they’re both getting what they want out of the relationship.
Desmond and Dawn seem to be the only people in England whose views of Lionel are untainted by his newfound wealth. They have no desire for his money. They just want Lionel to give up the bedroom he no longer uses in their apartment. An added bonus would be to get his dogs, whom they love and whom he views as simply aids in his criminal activities. More than anything, though, Desmond lives in fear that his uncle will discover the truth about his affair with Grace. If there is one reason Lionel might kill him, it is that. His life isn’t the only thing he fears for. If Dawn finds out that Desmond’s relationship with his grandmother was anything more than “just cuddles” she’ll most likely leave him, taking their daughter Cilla with her. The underlying tension in the story is whether Grace, who is now suffering from dementia and speaking without thoughts of consequences, will reveal the truth.
Throughout the novel, Desmond mulls over his uncle’s intelligence, always concluding that his uncle is indeed smart and just chooses to act stupidly. Although Lionel’s intelligence remains questionable to readers, it seems that who Amis really is making fun of is all who partake, whether watching or being part of, the tabloid celebrity world. i.e. a good majority of the Western world. Maybe that’s why people are really offended. It’s not because Amis is making fun of a certain group of people. It’s because he’s making fun of all of us.
Where: Books & Books (265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables)
When: 6 p.m. Sunday, August 26
Price: Free. Tickets required. Available at Coral Gables, Miami Beach and Bal Harbour stores.
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