A tweet from August C. Bourré (@FishSauce) earlier today sent me on a hunt for the review I wrote of Warren Ellis’s debut novel, Crooked Little Vein, which was one of the pieces that got lost when I accidentally overwrote TSR’s files back in 2009. The book is nasty fun, and I’m looking forward to reading Ellis’s new novel, Gun Machine, if I ever manage to get a spare weekend.
The following review was originally published on January 2, 2008.
Crooked Little Vein. Warren Ellis; $27.95 cloth 978-0-06-072393-4, 280 pp., William Morrow
That is the opening line of Crooked Little Vein, the debut novel by acclaimed graphic novelist Warren Ellis. If that line in any way offends, repulses, or otherwise unnerves you, you’d be well advised to give this novel a very wide berth, because in the pantheon of outrageous perversity that unfolds over the following 280 pages, that’s about as effete and as tasteful as things get. If, however, you have a taste for the macabre – if you laughed out loud at the little dogs being inadvertently murdered in A Fish Called Wanda, or if you set aside American Psycho because it wasn’t edgy enough – this short novel, which reads like what would have resulted if Hieronymous Bosch had written The Da Vinci Code, might be for you.
The story – such as it is – centres on one Michael McGill, a luckless private investigator whose last case involved a group of men engaged in amorous relations with a flock of ostriches. McGill is hired by the U.S. President’s chief of staff to track down a book, an alternate Constitution complete with twenty-three “Invisible Amendments,” which “is reputedly bound in the skin of the extraterrestrial entity that plagued Benjamin Franklin’s ass over six nights in Paris during his European travels,” and “is weighted with meteor fragments. The design is such that the sound of the book being opened onto a table has infrasonic content, too low for human hearing. The book briefly vibrates at eighteen hertz, which is the resonant frequency of the human eyeball.”
Still with me?
Not that this admittedly outlandish premise matters much, really. Crooked Little Vein is nominally a hard-boiled detective story modelled on Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but the mystery story is just an excuse for Ellis to provide us with an increasingly deranged series of set-pieces featuring the denizens of the “American cultural underworld” that McGill encounters on his trek to find the missing volume. What follows is a kind of picaresque on acid involving saline-infused testicles, philosophical serial killers, and a cocaine-addled millionaire who takes advice from a talking teddy bear. Ellis is clearly operating in the Jerry Stahl mode of literary provocation, and he takes evident glee in dreaming up his outrageous and polymorphously perverse scenarios.
What is surprising is not the book’s compulsivity: this is a novel that dares you to look away, to stop reading, and it comes out of the gate at full speed. If you make it past the first chapter, you’re likely not going to stop, and the spiralling depravity of events ensures that a willing reader is propelled forward on an ever-increasing current of narrative energy.
No, what is surprising is that there is a moral centre to the story; the author actually manages to score a number of rhetorical points while constantly upping the gross-out ante. Ellis is interested in what defines the cultural mainstream of our society as against what exists at the margins. In a world where serial killers are more popular than rock stars in the mass psyche and large-scale Internet sex sites catering to every kind of fetish or paraphilia are patronized by soccer moms and librarians, is it even possible to speak of margins any more? If so, where are they, and to what extremes does a person have to go (or sink) to find them?
These are pressing questions, and Ellis deals with them head on. He throws an unforgiving, incandescent light on a society that has passed – almost without our realizing it – through the looking glass. Even in a cultural landscape that resembles a funhouse mirror, there are moral lines to be drawn, and Ellis is adept at locating them, while always remaining non-judgmental of those outsiders who enjoy more alternative or esoteric, yet essentially harmless, pursuits.
There is fun to be had here, for sure, but beyond and beneath the fun there is also a serious artist asking some probing questions about the way our culture is constructed in the early years of the 21st century. Crooked Little Vein could never be mistaken for great literature, but as a quick, dirty, entertaining diversion it is to be recommended. That it also asks some provocative questions is just the icing on Ellis’s perverse little cake.
A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Lawrence Block; $16.50 paper 978-0-316-12731-8, 340 pp., Mulholland Books
Getting Off. Lawrence Block; $17.95 paper 978-0-85768-582-7, 336 pp., Hard Case Crime
In any survey of American hard-boiled crime fiction, certain names naturally stand out. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, of course. James M. Cain. Jim Thompson. James Ellroy. Lawrence Block does not have quite the same literary cachet, although as a craftsperson, he can write circles around most of the hacks in the business. But for my money, Block’s series of novels featuring former New York City cop, unlicensed private investigator, and recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder are among the best – and most consistently strong – in the genre. They are undeniably dark books – they make the NYC of Law & Order look like a playground – and tinged with a plaintive melancholy that gets more and more pronounced as the series progresses.
And these are inescapably series novels: they are best read in order, and as a piece. Characters recur, disappear and reappear over the course of several books, and the shadow of Scudder’s memory grows longer and more nuanced with each successive entry.
That said, Block’s latest Scudder mystery, 2011′s A Drop of the Hard Stuff, is something of an outlier, in that it operates more as a standalone than certain other series installments and, although it is chronological in order, it flashes back to an earlier period in Scudder’s life, just after he quit drinking.
To effect this, Block employs a framing strategy that opens with the now long-sober Scudder sitting in a bar chatting with his friend (and series regular) Mick Ballou. (Though Scudder is sober, the milieu in which he operates is saturated with booze; he still frequents his old stomping grounds to meet contacts and glean information, although he restricts his intake to club soda and coffee.) Their discussion turns reflective, and Scudder begins to reminisce about a kid he knew in school, Jack Ellery. Scudder and Ellery had grown up together in the Bronx, but their paths diverged in later years, the former becoming an NYC cop and the latter turning to a life of petty crime. The first of four times Scudder encounters Ellery as an adult is behind a one-way mirror; Ellery has been arrested for robbery and put in a line-up, but the cops are forced to let him go when the witness flubs the ID. The last time Scudder sees Ellery, his erstwhile schoolmate is on a slab in the morgue.
Scudder had run into Ellery at an AA meeting, after which Ellery had confided that he was having difficulty with the program’s ninth step, making amends to those he had wronged. As a not-terribly-successful career criminal, Ellery had run afoul of numerous people, at least one of whom still held a grudge: the third time Scudder and Ellery encounter each other, the latter’s face has been beaten to a pulp.
After Ellery’s death, his sponsor, Greg Stillman, approaches Scudder and asks for help. Stillman is a self-confessed “Step Nazi” – a sponsor who demands rigid adherence to the steps toward recovery – and is wracked with guilt over the thought that Ellery was killed while trying to make amends to someone in his past. The list Ellery compiled of the people he had wronged (in accordance with Step Eight of the twelve) has five names on it: these become the five principal suspects in his demise.
Scudder’s investigation takes him on a tour of some of the seedier sections of New York, and the flashback method of storytelling allows Block to draw contrasts between the city as it was in the 1980s and the way it is now. (One of the great joys of the Matthew Scudder books is watching the city grow and evolve alongside the protagonist. Hell’s Kitchen becomes Clinton, but the name change doesn’t prove to be the prophylactic against crime city planners might have hoped for.) The part of New York that Scudder frequents – its decrepit church basements and dive bars, its walk-ups and cop shops – has always been as much of a character as any of the humans in Block’s novels; the author and his detective inhabit a locale that lives and breathes and seethes and changes. The Scudder novels may not be approved by the New York City tourist board, but they provide a provocative and uneasy glimpse into the dark side of the city that never sleeps.
One of the dangers of the series has always been that Scudder’s sobriety teeters on the edge of becoming formulaic, and there are moments in A Drop of the Hard Stuff when the narrative tilts over that edge. Writers as diverse as Nick Tosches and James Frey have pointed out that by insisting on attendance at a minimum of one meeting per day in the first year sober, encouraging recovering alcoholics to admit powerlessness over their disease and devote themselves to the program in perpetuity, AA merely replaces one addiction with another. And like any addiction, on one level, the repetition of meetings, confessions, handing out chips, and reflection about the difficulties of staying sober can become somewhat monotonous. A Drop of the Hard Stuff takes place toward the end of Scudder’s first year without drink, and Block does a good job of dramatizing the temptations to stray from the path of sobriety, and the dangers involved in giving in. But over the course of more than 300 pages, the endless cycle of meetings does become a bit wearisome.
Block is a staggeringly prolific author who has been writing the Scudder series since 1975. In 1994, he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. It would be unsurprising if, after all that time and all those books, he didn’t begin to repeat himself, even occasionally. Despite A Drop of the Hard Stuff‘s plot, which takes a spare whodunnit formula and turns it inside out, and an ending that subverts the reader’s expectations quite neatly, there is the sense that much of this territory has been trod in earlier series installments. Newcomers to the series might enjoy the book more as a standalone introduction, though those of us who have missed Scudder are likely glad just to have him back, if not at the very top of his game.
In any event, A Drop of the Hard Stuff stands head and shoulders above Getting Off, the other novel Block published in 2011, this one under Hard Case Crime’s imprint of hard-boiled and pulp thrillers. Written under the pseudonym Jill Emerson and subtitled A Novel of Sex and Violence, Getting Off is deliberately, almost defiantly, in the pulp mode. The book chimes with the Scudder novel in numerous ways, many of them more noticeable if the two are read back-to-back. In both novels, characters use the overly twee phrase “di dah di dah di dah” as a kind of verbal placeholder. And both novels feature a central character checking names off a list.
In this case, the character was born Katherine Anne Tolliver, but has gone by so many different aliases in adulthood she has lost track of them all. Katherine has a pattern when it comes to men: she picks up anonymous strangers in bars, has sex with them, then kills them and moves on, often stealing whatever money her victim has in his wallet. She does this, we come to understand, as a means of expunging the memory of her father, who sexually abused her as a child and adolescent. Five men have managed to walk away from sexual encounters with her; when she realizes the psychic scars this leaves her with, she determines to track them down and finish the job.
If this premise is in any way offensive to a reader’s sensibilities, that reader is advised to give this novel a wide berth. Block plays with the pulp convention of the femme fatale, but pushes it into territory James M. Cain and Jim Thompson could never have dreamt of. There is an instance of phone sex coupled with necrophilia, and one of Katherine’s marks turns out to be a veteran of the Iraq war who was horribly injured by a roadside bomb while on duty. There is something almost commendable about Block’s willingness to push his scenario to its extreme outer reaches, but the sense of discomfort is heightened by the book’s pulp nature: the sensationalism in the novel is an end in itself, which renders the entire enterprise creepy and squirm-inducing at best.
This is particularly true for the sex, which is plentiful and explicit. It is not, however, particularly well handled. Erotica and horror are the two most difficult genres for an author to pull off, because if either is done badly, it becomes unintentionally funny. There is a lot of unintentional laughter in Getting Off, particularly with regard to Katherine’s phone conversations with Rita, a woman she encountered as a landlord during one of her brief stays, and has since developed an attraction to. Their dialogues, which involve everything from mutual masturbation to threesomes to butt plugs to sex with Mormons, are highly self-conscious and absurd, and almost succeed in stopping the book in its tracks.
On one hand, it’s hard not to admire Block’s willingness to wallow in the depths of the pulp mode, to begin with the tropes and conventions of the lurid paperbacks that used to be stocked on wire spin-racks in drugstores in the 1940s and ’50s, then to inject them with liberal doses of explicit sex and violence. (Anyone liable to slag Block for trying to cash in on the E.L. James-inspired clamour for all things naughty should note that Block’s novel appeared the year before Fifty Shades of Grey became a publishing phenomenon.) But the book is too bloated and the sex too ill-handled for it to appear as anything more than a minor work in the career of one of America’s best living crime novelists.
Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany. Rudolph Herzog, Jefferson Chase, trans.; $16.95 paper 978-1-61219-130-0, 250 pp., Melville House Publishing
It is difficult to imagine how dangerous it was to tell that joke – so seemingly innocuous from a 2013 perspective – to a German audience during the years the Third Reich held power. The cabaret performer responsible for the quip, Werner Finck, had every reason to be wary of the Nazis’ “cultural inspectors,” having already spent six weeks in the Esterwegen concentration camp as a result of his public performances. Following his release, the popular German comedian and actor found work at the Cabaret of Comedians in Berlin, an establishment run by a man “known for toeing the party line,” but was forced to temper his act to ensure that his political humour was not overly explicit; his audiences became adept at reading between the lines of Finck’s comedy, and the performer himself referred to working at “half throttle.”
By 1939, the relatively liberal attitude the Nazis adopted toward critical humour during their early years in power (at least prior to the Reichstag fire in February of 1933) had disappeared, and Joseph Goebbels, who headed the Ministry of Propaganda, was on the verge of cracking down hard on transgressors. As Rudolph Herzog writes in his intriguing book: “Goebbels, determined not to be flouted again by his rival Göring, was preparing a renewed attack on Finck within the General Staff. ‘Political jokes will be eradicated, ripped out by the very roots,’ Goebbels noted in his diary.”
Humour, of course, has various registers and uses: it can be harmless or cutting; it can be employed to let off steam or to underscore hypocrisy and cupidity. It did not help matters that the Nazis’ response to humour they found too critical or subversive was applied so arbitrarily: punishment ran the gamut from imprisonment in Dachau to – in extreme cases – execution. Finck was lucky as a result of his fame and the timely intercession of an actress who was also an erstwhile consort of Hermann Göring. Others did not fare so well. Erich Ohser, who was responsible for satirical political cartoons depicting, among other things, “a man out for a walk in the snow urinating in the form of a swastika,” was arrested for making seditious remarks to a friend; Ohser committed suicide, and his friend was sentenced to death.
Herzog, the son of noted documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, details the diverse ways various levels of society employed humour in the Third Reich, from professional cabaret performers to ordinary citizens to the government itself, with its officially sanctioned propaganda cinema that served, in part, to foment anti-Jewish sentiment. The Nazi campaign against the Jews, Herzog argues, was aided by the kind of anti-Semitic banter that was allowed to spread like wildfire throughout German society: “There were even jokes that laughed at anti-Jewish violence, and these were told not just by hardcore Nazi party supporters, but also by hordes of willing opportunists and March violets.”
On the other side of the coin, Herzog points out that persecuted Jewish Europeans also engaged in humour – although of an understandably darker, more mordant variety – as a coping mechanism. The author records a scathing joke about unequal food rations under the Nazis: “Our occupiers know a lot about nutrition. They’ve scientifically determined that Germans need 2,500 calories a day to survive, while Poles require only 600 and Jews just 150.”
The final section of Herzog’s book addresses what is arguably the most distressing question in the context of humour and the Nazis: is it ever permissible to laugh about the Holocaust? Guilt over Nazi atrocities is pervasive in German society even today, but Herzog points out that anti-Semitism persisted even after the war was over. He quotes the three “unwritten rules” about depictions of the Holocaust attributed to American scholar Terrence Des Pres:
- The Holocaust shall be represented, in its totality, as a unique event, as a special case and kingdom of its own, above or below or apart from history.
- Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason – artistic reasons included.
- The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even sacred event with seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead.
“But by the end of the 1960s,” Herzog writes, “the American comedian-director Mel Brooks would break all the rules – written and unwritten – of historical piety.” It is possible that Brooks managed to get away with his 1968 farce, The Producers, complete with its comedic centrepiece, the fictional Broadway musical Springtime for Hitler, because the director was himself Jewish. Elsewhere in his book, Herzog points to movies shot outside Germany during the Third Reich – Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be – as comedic works that successfully satirized Nazi fascism and its attendant persecution of European Jews, and he is complimentary toward the Oscar-winning 1997 Roberto Benigni film La Vita e Bella. Interestingly, he ignores any mention of the notorious unreleased Jerry Lewis vehicle The Day the Clown Cried.
In sum, Dead Funny is a fascinating examination of an aspect of German history that is often overlooked. Herzog debunks the myth that humour was absent altogether under the Third Reich, and in so doing also explodes the notion that the German people were ignorant of the crimes being committed by Hitler and his cronies. For cultural enthusiasts and students of the Second World War, the book provides a disturbing glimpse into life under the Nazi regime, and the bitter comedy that simultaneously helped foster and sabotage it.
Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story. Julian Barnes; $19.95 paper 978-0-345-81300-8, 244 pp., Vintage Canada
Julian Barnes is a deeply serious reader. This is not to say he is joyless – far from it. The seventeen essays (and one story) in his new collection testify to the vivacity with which Barnes approaches the reading act, as well as the range of his interests. However, if you’re looking for discussions of recent bestsellers or the latest popcorn fantasy series for young adults, you won’t find them here. Instead, you’ll discover a triptych of essays devoted to the high modernist Ford Madox Ford, an appreciation of the 18th century French moralist Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort, and a short piece on Félix Fénéon, whose uncategorizable work Nouvelles en trois lignes (re-released by New York Review Books in 2007 as Novels in Three Lines) Barnes calls “the literary equivalent of a cocktail olive.”
France represents one focal point for Barnes’s sensibility as a reader, at least as evidenced by the pieces on offer here. Through the Window is roughly divided into three parts. The first deals with British writers; the second, central sequence of essays focuses on French writers; and the final part looks at a handful of Americans. These sections segue organically into one another. Kipling, the “demotic, pragmatic, self-educated celebrant of the British empire,” whose fascination with France was by no means uncomplicated, serves as the pivot between the first and second parts of the book, while a pair of American writers – Wharton and Hemingway – each of whom spent a considerable amount of time in France, form the bridge between the second and third parts.
Barnes is a classicist, and implies his disinterest in much current writing by largely ignoring it. The only living writers he deals with in this volume are Lorrie Moore, Michel Houellebecq, and Joyce Carol Oates (the last in a brief, and not altogether laudatory, consideration of her memoir A Widow’s Story). He does talk about Lydia Davis, but only in the context of her translation of Madame Bovary (a “linguistically careful version” that sometimes “takes us too far away from English, and makes us less aware of Flaubert’s prose than of Davis being aware of Flaubert’s prose”).
Collectively, the essays in the book paint a picture of Barnes as a thoughtful connoisseur, an enthusiast who never allows his enthusiasm to blind him to a work’s faults. Even at his most effusive, Barnes is rarely platitudinous. The one exception might be the opening essay on Penelope Fitzgerald, an author to whom Barnes makes no secret of being in thrall. This essay does offer some repudiation of the reputation Fitzgerald was afforded in the press, a reputation “attended by a marked level of male diminishment.” It also suggests that perhaps Fitzgerald won the Booker for the wrong work, “which would hardly be revolutionary in the history of the prize” (a truth Barnes should be intimately familiar with, one can’t help but remark).
As a careful reader, Barnes notices things many others might miss. Hemingway, Barnes is quick to point out, is often characterized as the apotheosis of machismo, when in fact he wrote more persistently and convincingly about cowardice and inaction. John Updike, “delineator of conventional, continuing America, is incessantly writing about flight.” Barnes shows himself to be an unapologetic advocate of Updike, claiming the Rabbit Angstrom quartet as “the greatest post-war American novel.” His piece on Updike (actually two pieces, published in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian shortly after the older writer’s death in 2009) also illustrates the ways in which Updike might have been one of the finest and most unsentimental literary examiners of aging and death, perhaps one reason (along with his precisely detailed, demanding prose style) he appears so off-putting to many younger readers.
Through the Window opens with a preface entitled “A Life with Books,” in which the author traces the roots of his bibliophilia and makes an impassioned case for the continuing relevance of books as objects. He quotes Updike (again), who late in life expressed despair about what he considered to be the dying art of printed literature. “I am more optimistic,” Barnes asserts, “both about reading and about books. There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers – there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art. Yet nothing can replace the exact, complicated, subtle communion between absent author and entranced, present reader.” In the essays that follow, Barnes proves himself a very good reader, indeed: one who elevates the skill to art. Taken together, his essays on writers and books he admires also illustrate a separate assertion from his preface, one that seeks to debunk a myth all too common in our modern mindset: “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.” Through the Window is an exuberant, intelligent plunge into life.
The writer’s art appears to seek a compensation for the hopelessness or meanness of existence. By some occult method, the writer has connected himself with the feelings and ideal conceptions of which few signs remain in ordinary existence. Some novelists, the naturalists, have staked everything on ordinary existence in their desire to keep their connection with the surrounding world. Many of these have turned themselves into recording instruments at best, and at worst they have sucked up to the crowd, disgustingly. But the majority of modern novelists have followed the standard of Flaubert, the aesthetic standard. The shock caused by the loss of faith, says Professor Heller in The Disinherited Mind, made Burckhardt adopt an aesthetic view of history. If he is right, a sharp sense of disappointment and aestheticism go together. Flaubert complained that the exterior world was “disgusting, enervating, corruptive, and brutalizing. … I am turning towards a kind of aesthetic mysticism,” he wrote.
– Saul Bellow, “The Sealed Treasure” (1960)
She was the first “nice” girl he had ever known. In various unrevealed capacities he had come in contact with such people, but always with indiscernible barbed wire between. He found her exceedingly desirable. He went to her house, at first with other officers from Camp Taylor, then alone. It amazed him – he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity, was that Daisy lived there – it was as casual a thing to her as the tent out at camp was to him. There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered. It excited him, too, that many men had already loved Daisy – it increased her value in his eyes. He felt their presence all about the house, pervading the air with the shades and echoes of still vibrant emotions.
– The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last agonizing, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war whoop! Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges! Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums! Let the dead eat the dead. Let us living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a last expiring dance. But a dance!
– Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
Lionel Asbo. Martin Amis; $29.95 cloth 978-0-307-40211-0, 272 pp., Knopf Canada
In British jurisprudence, an ASBO is an Anti-Social Behaviour Order. The precursor to the ASBO was called a Restraining Directive, something the thuggish title character of Martin Amis’s thirteenth novel first received at the age of three. “Three years and two days: a national record (though disputed by other claimants).” Physically, Lionel is “brutally generic – the slablike body, the full lump of the face, the tight-shaved crown with its tawny stubble”; he derives his income from a combination of extortion and thievery, and at age twenty-one, has spent much of his young life as a ward of the state, first in a Youth Offender Institution (he speaks almost wistfully of “Doing me Yoi”), then in adult prison, where he managed to elevate himself “almost up to PhD level on questions of criminal law.” After beating a bar patron so severely the victim allegedly had to be removed from the premises on a stretcher, Lionel is able to engage in a knowledgeable deconstruction of the legal distinction between ABH (Actual Bodily Harm) and GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm). When he turned eighteen, Lionel (né Pepperdine) legally changed his surname to Asbo, something his nephew Desmond thinks is indicative of the lengths his uncle will go to work at being stupid:
All his uncle would say was that Pepperdine’s a crap name anyhow. And Asbo has a nice ring to it. This was literally the case: Lionel would flaunt his electronic loop (it looked like an ankle strap with a battery attached), even as he took the stand at the Old Bailey (Ah yes. Mr … “Asbo.” Mr Asbo, this is not the first time you have …). You could only do that if you gave being stupid a lot of very intelligent thought.
During one stint in prison, Lionel learns he has won almost £140,000,000 on the national lottery, which allows Amis to engage in a series of fish-out-of water set pieces: Lionel trashes a hotel room, drinks champagne out of pint glasses, takes up with a former supermodel known as “Threnody” (the quotation marks are essential, we are told), and does battle with a lobster in an upscale restaurant.
If all this sounds like a bald caricature of an English chav, bear in mind that the character is based on Michael Carroll, a British garbage collector who won £9.7 million on the lottery and blew the lot on drugs, prostitutes, and gambling. (According to the Daily Mail, Carroll showed up to collect his winnings “wearing an electronic offender’s tag.”) The character of “Threnody” bears striking resemblance to Katie Price, a former topless model turned author and reality television star (Amis says he read Price’s autobiography as research). Amis has amped the volume up to eleven (and swapped pit bulls for Carroll’s rottweilers), but the exaggerations are not all that extreme.
This is perhaps one reason Amis comes in for such criticism: his portrait of our modern world is often more precise, and more unflattering, than we are willing to admit. The running joke about the British tabloid advertising GILFs (think of women one generation removed from MILFs) is funny precisely because Lionel’s astonishment at the very idea that anyone might indulge in such a fetish is juxtaposed with the evident reality of Western society’s polymorphous perversity, something the Internet has only amplified. (It should go without saying that Lionel is also a connoisseur of Internet pornography.) When Lionel offers a deconstruction of the reasons Britain went to war in Iraq, his blatant oversimplifications are distressingly accurate rejoinders to the prevarications of the Blair government. And when he counsels his newly acquired money manager on how to invest his funds, he sounds like the CEO of Lehman Brothers.
For all of this, Amis has tempered his savagery this time out by providing Lionel with a foil in his nephew, Desmond, a much more sensitive soul wracked with guilt over an incestuous affair with his grandmother, Lionel’s mother, which began when Des was all of fifteen. Gran, at the time, was “a reasonably presentable thirty-nine”; Lionel was “a heavily weathered twenty-one.” Des’s guilt over the affair is shot through with terror because, of course, should Lionel find out about his dalliance, he will kill him. Des supplies the novel’s conscience, its moral centre. He is one of the most sympathetic characters in the Amis canon and, significantly, one of the only characters the author allows a happy ending. Whether this indicates a mellowing on Amis’s part is debatable; at the very least, the final stages of Lionel Asbo offer some of the most unexpectedly tender scenes the author has ever penned.
But, lest anyone suppose that the novel descends into a kind of touchy-feely sentimentalism, rest assured that Lionel remains the book’s driving force – a hulking, marauding whirlwind of bad behaviour and destruction, a virtuoso of violence, a maestro of mayhem. “I am only interested in extremes,” Amis told the Guardian. “The one absentee from my novels is the middle class – I never write about them, I always write about the criminal class, the low-life class, and the very privileged.” Funny and frightening in roughly equal measure, Lionel is far more interesting and engaging than the recondite aesthetes wandering aimlessly through the Italian villa in Amis’s previous novel, The Pregnant Widow.
Amis claims to prefer the term “ironist” over “satirist” as a means of describing his literary approach, but for the sake of argument let’s go with the latter for the moment. If any modern author can be said to write Swiftian satire, it’s Amis. And if Swift’s assessment of satire as “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own” is correct, then Lionel Asbo may be a perfect satirical character for our postmodern age. He is a manifestation of a kind of unfettered id, a narcissist programmed for instant gratification, who finds himself suddenly offered the means to satisfy it. In other words, he is an outsized reflection of much of the Western world in the early part of the 21st century, with our entitlements and privileges, many (not to say most) of which are unearned. It is likely that the majority of Amis’s educated, liberal humanist readers would recoil from any association with Lionel, but perhaps they should take a closer, more honest look. Amis is frequently castigated for the crime of telling the truth, which is something many of us in our comfortable modern lives don’t want to hear. In a sense, Lionel Asbo is all of us. And how discomfiting is that?
Note: This review is based on the Jonathan Cape edition of the novel. Knopf Canada will publish Lionel Asbo on August 21.
This is one of the best things I’ve come across in a long, long while.
From East of the West
“There was no good reason for me to be in America.” This thought, placed in the mouth of the Bulgarian expat, twentysomething first-person narrator of Miroslav Penkov’s story “Buying Lenin,” helps immediately to set up the central conflict: between the new world and the old; between a young man, who has fled his home in Eastern Europe for the promise of a new life in the United States, and the young man’s grandfather, a staunch adherent to the Communist philosophy and heritage that suffered a mortal wound when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The young man leaves home, not because he is oppressed or starving – “at least not in the corporeal sense” – but because he carries in his blood “the rabies of the West.”
In his grandfather’s eyes, this disease is inextricably entangled with capitalism. And he has good reason to think this: when the narrator is practicing English prior to his move, the phrase he repeats over and over is “remember the money.” “Phrases like this, I’d heard, helped you to break your tongue.”
Penkov wrings much comedy out of the young man’s attempts to acclimatize himself to idiomatic English once he has arrived in Arkansas: “Those of us for whom English was a second language were instructed what to expect when it was fixin’ to rain. What ‘yonder’ meant, and how it was ‘a bummer’ to be there ‘yonder’ with no umbrella and it ‘fixin’ to rain.’ ” In America, the words the narrator studied back home fail to make sense in combination: “What was a hotpocket? I wondered. Why was my roommate so excited to see two girls across the hallway making out? What were they making out?”
But there is additional comedy in the distance between American culture and the narrator’s cultural touchstones. When the narrator arrives in the States, he is greeted by two men and a woman, who “were from some organization that cared a whole lot for international students.” The nature of this organization quickly becomes apparent:
“Welcome to America,” they said in one warm, friendly voice, and their honest faces beamed. In the car they gave me a Bible.
“Do you know what this is?” the girl bellowed slowly.
“No,” I said. She seemed genuinely pleased.
“These are the deeds of our Savior. The word of our Lord.”
“Oh, Lenin’s collected works,” I said. “Which volume?”
As far as the narrator’s grandfather is concerned, Lenin’s collected works are indeed the word of the Lord, or at least, the lord of his universe. He credits Communism with saving his life during the Second World War; with introducing him to his wife, at whose grave he attends each day since she died to read aloud to her from Lenin’s writing; and for providing him with a raison d’être. When the Eastern Bloc begins to fracture after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the grandfather feels bereft because he has lost the two things that gave his life meaning and purpose: his wife and the Communist Party. Indeed, he is convinced that it was the fall of Communism that killed his wife: ” ‘Her cancer was a consequence of the grave disappointments of her pure and idealistic heart,’ Grandpa would explain. ‘She could not watch her dreams being trampled on so she did the only possible thing an honest woman could do – she died.”
At university in the States, the narrator learns about Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, and is amazed: “My God was there such a thing? A collective unconscious? If so, I wanted in. I longed to be a part of it; connected, to dream the dreams of other people, others to dream my dreams. I went to sleep hoping to dream vivid, transcendental symbols.” This, of course, is quite close to a definition of what Communism represents for his grandfather, although the narrator would doubtless be hard pressed to see it that way. He would be more likely to associate Communism with the crawfish he and his grandfather used to catch when the narrator was a boy:
Grandpa would give me a stick and a bag. Hundreds of twitching crawfish at our feet: poke their pincers with the stick, and they pinch as hard as they can. I learned to lift them, then shake them off into the bag. One by one you collect.
“They are easy prey,” Grandpa would say. “You catch one, but the others don’t run away. The others don’t even know you are there until you pick them up, and even then they still have no idea.”
This is the flip side of communal idealism: the notion that people who long so desperately for a community can easily be manipulated to follow the crowd. “Give us the child for eight years,” Lenin wrote, “and it will be a Bolshevik forever.”
Whatever distance may exist between the narrator’s ideals and those of his grandfather, it is nevertheless obvious that the two men love each other, and feel the physical gulf between them acutely. “Grandpa, there is so much water between us,” the narrator says on the phone at one point. To which his grandfather responds, “But blood, I hope, is thicker than the ocean.”
In the end, the narrator attempts to extend an olive branch to his grandfather by buying what someone on eBay is advertising as the body of Vladimir Lenin. “This was a scam, of course,” the narrator thinks. “But what wasn’t? I clicked Buy It Now, completed the transaction. Congratulations, Communist-Dupe_1944, the confirmation read. You bought Lenin.” The comedy here is mixed with melancholy: the year 1944 is the year the narrator’s grandfather claims he hid from the Fascists in a tiny, cramped dugout along with fifteen other people, before finally emerging to find that the Communists had been victorious. And of course there is much irony in the idea of the corpse of Lenin being purchased via one of capitalism’s most Platonic manifestations: an Internet auction site.
The final stages of the story, sentimental though they may be, represent a kind of detente between the two opposing viewpoints as embodied by the narrator and his grandfather. In the end, blood does prove thicker than the ocean, and ideologies prove malleable in the face of the enduring need for human connection and understanding.