How Late It Was, How Late: Martin Amis's Changing Vision of London
Robson, Leo, New Statesman (1996)
Lionel Asbo: State of England
Jonathan Cape, 288pp, [pounds sterling] 18.99
Although he is nowadays associated with American rhythms and American women and American real estate, and has a taste for writers with names such as Saul and Kurt and Don and Elmore, the most ambitious, seductive and, at 6 z, promising English novelist of his generation started off as a neo-Dickensian. "For I had begun to explore the literary grotesque," Charles Highway explains, giving an account of his "nocturnal reading", a little way into Martin Amis's first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), "in particular the writings of Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka, to find a world full of the bizarre surfaces and sneaky tensions with which I was always trying to invest my own life." Occasionally, Charles Highway finds something in the writings of Charles Dickens so close to his desires for his own life that he plagiarises it--or perhaps, in wearing "wiry wings" on either side of an "else" bald head, Charles's father was simply plagiarising Mr Podsnap.
Like Angus Wilson and Edmund Wilson, like George Gissing and George Orwell, like V S Pritchett and F R Leavis, Amis expressed strong views on Dickens's legacy. "While assured of his status as a great writer," he wrote in the New Statesman in November 1973, "Dickens is still uncertain of his status as a serious one. He insists on being romantic, melodramatic, unrepresentational (like his trashier contemporaries) and will not be adult, introspective, mimetic (like the major Victorians)."
Following Northrop Frye, Amis saw the Dickens novel as the stage for a conflict between the "congenial" society, "mostly featureless and uniform ... normally based round a quite young, and quite boring, couple", and an "obstructing" society that is "far more exuberantly imagined". Being "more vulgarly romantic" than Jane Austen, Dickens transformed these opposed societies into "the hidden, elemental worlds of Good and Bad". The amnesiac heroine of Amis's fourth novel, Other People: a Mystery Story (1981), reads a Dickens omnibus and notes that, in every story, "a nice young man and a nice young woman weaved through a gallery of grimacing villains, deformed wags and rigid patriarchs until, after an illness or a separation or a long sea voyage, they came together and lived happily ever after".
Amis's version of Dickens's work--what it stands for, what it amounts to, the possibilities it flourishes--is narrow, to say the least, and so when he composes a more or less straight piece of updated Dickens pastiche, as he has done in Lionel Asbo: State of England, it is best to lower, or narrow, your expectations. The novel contains a nice young man in Desmond Pepperdine, orphan and autodidact; a nice young woman in his girlfriend, Dawn Sheringham; and a grimacing villain, or a grimacing anti-hero, in his uncle Lionel Pepperdine ("the great asocial"), "a subsistence criminal" who changed his name by deed poll to Asbo when he turned 18.
Lionel, being Desmond's guardian, doubles as a rigid patriarch. The last-act reunion of Desmond and Dawn comes after an illness and a separation. Long train journeys take the place of long sea voyages.
Six years Desmond's senior, Lionel is "a heavily weathered 21" when the novel begins. He doesn't get any healthier as things progress, though he does get richer, and very quickly. About a quarter of the way into the novel, Lionel learns that he has won "very slightly" less than [pounds sterling] 150m in the National Lottery. He becomes tabloid-famous overnight ("Lotto Lout" is just one of his many alliterative nicknames). Then, after another stint in prison and a period of aggressive bachelorhood, he picks up a poet/glamour-model girlfriend, the colourful "Threnody", all the while proving worthy of mock-heroic vocabulary ("Lionel betook himself to the Bolingbroke Bar") and mock-heroic, Shakespearean allusion ("Propped up on silken pillows, Lionel Asbo sat in the great barge of the fourton four-poster"). …