Lionel Asbo and the malaise of modernity

August 1, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

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.

“Narrow that phalanx”: Martin Amis vs. the space invaders

February 16, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Martin Amis has always concerned himself with games, sports, and other assorted pastimes. Here he is in an essay entitled “Chess: Kasparov v. Karpov,” which was originally published in the Observer:

Nowhere in sport, perhaps nowhere in human activity, is the gap between the tryer and the expert so astronomical. Oh, I have thrown 180 at darts – twice in a lifetime. On the snooker table I have brought off violent pots that would have jerked them to their feet in the Sheffield Crucible. As for tennis, I need hardly hype my crosscourt backhand “dink,” which is so widely feared in the parks of North Kensington. But my chances of a chess brilliancy are the “chances” of a lab chimp and a typewriter producing King Lear. Even at the most rarefied level, though, chess has a robust universality. The two Ks start a tournament tomorrow, but they will also be starting something else: scores are to be settled, grudges are to be purged. Openly and avowedly, noisily and pridefully, they will be hunting each others’ blood. That we can understand.

Here we can identify many of the signatures of Amis’s literary style: the brazen machismo, the colourful jargon (“violent pots”; “my crosscourt backhand ‘dink'”), the rhetorical flourishes (the two chess masters will not just be hunting each others’ blood, they will be hunting it “Openly and avowedly, noisily and pridefully”).

Now imagine that high literary style applied to classic arcade games.

In 1982, four years before the piece on the rival chess masters appeared, Amis published a little-known volume entitled Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines. The cover of this curious guide is quaintly retro from the perspective of 2012: a tanned, earring-bedecked gamer sporting a glistening pompadour and what certainly passed for space-travelling duds in the recent wake of the television series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (Google it if you’re too young to remember) leans against a gigantic arcade machine around which a threatening, vaguely electric-looking black form with menacing green eyes glares. The author’s name appears below in the bitmapped font that was au courant at the time for any text designer who wanted to convey a futuristic feel. The book’s introduction is by a young Hollywood wunderkind named Steven Spielberg.

Invasion of the Space Invaders is long out of print, and has been disavowed by its author. In a review of Steven Poole’s 2001 book Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, Nicholas Lezard admits he once suggested to Amis that Invasion of the Space Invaders was the author’s best book, a comment that was met with an expression containing “perhaps more pity in it than contempt.” Regardless, the book has become so storied in certain circles that one of the few copies to be found could command upwards of $400 in 2005.

I learned about Invasion of the Space Invaders from a fascinating article by Mark O’Connell posted at The Millions. O’Connell unearthed a copy of the book in a university library, and provides some excellent commentary about it. The passages O’Connell quotes are painfully funny, but also contain flashes of a filigreed style that can belong only to Amis: “Those cute little PacMen with their special nicknames, that dinky signature tune, the dot-munching Lemon that goes whackawhackawhackawhacka: the machine has an air of childish whimsicality.” The advice on how to win at Pac Man, O’Connell suggests, “might be the sole instance of the use of the mock-heroic tone in a video game player’s guide,” but the guide to prevailing at Space Invaders – “Rule one: narrow that phalanx” – is “technically correct.”

O’Connell’s piece is really valuable, however, for the way it contextualizes Invasion of the Space Invaders, a book he winkingly refers to as “the madwoman in the attic of Amis’ house of nonfiction.” “Anything a writer disowns is of interest,” writes Sam Leith in a review of a recent Amis biography; O’Connell’s piece is demonstrative of the truth in that aphorism. He provides a reading of the text at hand, but also opens his discussion outwards to encompass pervading themes and approaches in Amis’s other, more serious, work:

Games and game-playing are, after all, both a presiding motif in Amis’s novels and a fundamental principal [sic] of their construction. His most successful fictions are arranged around antagonisms, rivalries, and hidden maneuvers. London Fields is an elaborate trap-like construction in which three male characters (including a blocked novelist) are manipulated by a female mastermind into bringing about her own murder. The Information is about a failed writer’s increasingly malicious attempts to destroy the career of his more successful friend. The plot of Money is a Nabokovian conceit in which Self winds up the loser through failing to recognize the game. In that novel’s most bluntly metafictional moment, the character called Martin Amis lets Self in on some of the secrets of his trade: “The further down the scale [a character] is, the more liberties you can take with him. You can do what the hell you like to him, really. This creates an appetite for punishment. The author is not free of sadistic impulses.”

Even a great writer’s failed, flawed, or rejected writing can help us better appreciate and understand that writer’s unique significance.

In defence of (some) genre fiction

December 14, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

At first, it’s not clear what he’s on about. Writing in the Guardian, novelist Edward Docx expresses joy at wandering through a train and noticing numerous passengers reading books – good, old-fashioned, paper-and-glue books. His joy quickly sours, however, when he realizes that the passengers are all reading one of the three books in Stieg Larsson’s monumentally successful Millennium Trilogy. This becomes the jumping off point for a discussion of what Docx perceives to be the elevated merits of literary fiction as against the debased coinage of genre.

Docx starts off on shaky ground, beginning his diatribe by talking about Larsson and Dan Brown, two writers he admits are “mesmerisingly bad.” It’s true that the first half of Larsson’s first book (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the only volume of the Millennium Trilogy I was able to get even partway into) is characterized by stilted dialogue, clumsy exposition, and enough arcane detail about transnational finance to make an economist weep with boredom. It is a badly written, tedious book (not all of this, surely, can be blamed on the translator). And Dan Brown’s writing comes perilously close to unreadability. Let’s grant Docx all of that. It remains curious that someone who wants to illustrate the reasons why literary writers are superior to their genre counterparts should begin by focusing on two authors he himself feels represent the bottom of the genre barrel. “We need to be clear-eyed here,” Docx avers, but by opening as he does, he knocks his entire argument out of focus. (Surely, if one wants to argue the merits of literary fiction over genre, it is only fair to choose the best examples of genre fiction to debunk.)

He then goes on to state that the reason genre fiction is inferior to literary fiction has to do with the conventions upon which it relies: mysteries, Westerns, sci-fi, and romance novels all cleave to particular rules, and in so doing limit the potential for innovation and surprise.

[E]ven good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That’s the way writing works and lots of people who don’t write novels don’t seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.

So it follows that genre tends to rely on a simpler reader psychology. If you have a body on the first page, then you raise a question: who killed it and how did it get there? And curiosity will power readers a surprisingly long way. As will, say, a treasure hunt (Brown) or injustice (Grisham) or the locked room mystery format (Larsson). None of this is to say that writing good thrillers is easy. It is still incredibly difficult. But it is easier.

Sure, that’s the way writing works. What Docx forgets (or, more probably, chooses to ignore) is that’s the way all writing works, whether it be genre or literary. The detective novel has a set of conventions, true, but so does the family novel, or the coming-of-age novel, or the road novel. Writers make choices, it’s one of the most essential things they do. The minute a writer chooses a subject – a coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old girl living in the Midwest United States, for example – that writer is automatically limited in any further choices he or she may make. The form of the story can differ – it could be told naturalistically, or in an absurdist manner, or as a satire – but the fact of a 16-year-old girl in the Midwest means that the writer is no longer free to imagine the logic or the psychology that would apply, say, to a middle-aged man in Mumbai. These constraints are every bit as forceful for literary writers as are the conventions within which genre writers operate.

Nor is it clear that genre fiction relies on a simpler reader psychology than literary fiction, any more than it has to be less ambitious in its execution. Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves is a generic haunted house story, but it involves characters with a great deal of psychological depth and is narrated in such a way that even the layout of the words on the page becomes an integral part of the reading experience. It is high-concept, postmodern, and experimental, while always operating within the accepted conventions of a supernatural thriller. While it’s true the reader confronted with a dead body on the first page wants to know how it got there, that reader is also likely interested in the process by which the story unfolds, the psychological make-up of the various characters, the particulars of the setting, and all the other elements genre works share in common with literary ones.

Docx suggests that people who draw no distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction are being disingenuous and he may be right to a point, but he also elides the commonalities between the two, and ignores the fact that many literary writers work within various genres from time to time. He points out late in his piece that Crime and Punishment is a thriller. So too might he have pointed out that various highly literary writers have attempted genre stories, among them George Orwell, Henry James, Charles Dickens, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Isak Dinesen, Edgar Allen Poe, Haruki Murakami, Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, and William Faulkner. Indeed, two of the authors Docx mentions as worthy contemporary writers have dabbled in genre: Martin Amis’s novel Night Train is a hard-boiled police procedural, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a work of speculative fiction.

This is precisely why Docx’s analogy to cooking is invalid. It draws a distinction where there isn’t one:

To enlist a comparison, one might choose to set up a vast and international burger chain and sell millions of burgers. Or one might choose to open a single restaurant selling line-caught eel lasagne one night and hand-fondled quail poached in liquorice the next. We all like burgers – me as much as the next man – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But let’s be honest: there is a major difference in both the production and the consumption of the two experiences. Again, we can see why bad literary fiction is so much more annoying than bad genre. We pay more attention to the restaurant that claims to have carefully sourced its ingredients and then used skill and imagination to bring those to the table in a manner that is original, surprising, beautiful, clever and delicious. Failure in this second case, therefore, is far more irritating. But equally, if you are in the burger-selling business, then although your burgers may appear different – you can flip them with bacon or jalapeño or even Stilton – the truth is that they are all fundamentally the same; you are in the burger business or you are not in business at all.

Clearly, Docx assumes an either/or situation: someone will either choose to flip burgers or open a high-end restaurant. There is nowhere in this conception for a chef like Mark McEwen, who regularly puts burgers (costing $35 or more) on the menus of his fine dining establishments One and Bymark. In the same vein, Docx makes no allowance for literary writers who might want to sully themselves by experimenting with genre stories, or for ambitious genre writers, such as Jim Thompson or Elmore Leonard, whose work is more psychologically incisive and stylistically impressive than many (not to say most) so-called literary practitioners.

I go on about this at such length because Docx is rehearsing arguments that have been raised before (and will no doubt be raised again) – arguments that arise out of a brand of literary snobbery that is empty at its core. In delineating the difference between literary and genre fiction, Docx invokes Isaac D’Israeli: “it seems to me a wretched national compulsion to be gratified by mediocrity when the excellent lies before us.” D’Israeli was right, but in today’s literary landscape, much of what is elevated as great literature achieves no more than mediocrity, while much genre fiction manages excellence. Calling out bad writers like Brown and Larsson is one thing: they would be bad writers regardless of the milieu in which they chose to work. But lumping all genre fiction into the same pile ignores a wealth of interesting, ambitious, and invigorating work.