A dispiriting sense of deja vu as Amis' tired invective shows its age
Last time I enjoyed an extended conversation with Martin Amis, we ended up arguing about the late John Updike. The roots of this brisk little dispute lay in Updike's obituary notices.
These, I proposed, had been far less kind to the deceased's final novels than the reviews - many written by the same people - while he lived. Hadn't this collective punch-pulling been rather odd?
Amis (right), who had written one of these obituary notices himself, fixed me with a look of awful gravity and declared that the cardinal rule of book reviewing was that you didn't "shit on people who had given you pleasure". I experienced the fluttering sensation, common to all critics ushered into the presence of a Great Writer whose output they have ceased to esteem, that this no doubt well-intentioned remark was meant for me.
Why does the appearance of a book like Lionel Asbo inspire such abject misery in the breast of the seasoned reviewer? Alas, like many another semi-veteran British novelist - Jeanette Winterson and Graham Swift are obvious points of comparison - Martin Amis is one of those writers about whom it is increasingly difficult to find anything worth saying. The books keep on coming, at the same rate, attended by the same hectic publicity, and yet without any real 'development' in vision or technique.
The Pregnant Widow (2010), Amis's last fictional outing, returned its readers to the dawn of the 1970s sexual revolution: an Amis subject if ever there was one. Its successor, though thoroughly up to date in at least some incidental references, returns its readers to, well, a whole rack of other novels by Amis.
Lionel, a twentysomething petty criminal, low-end debt collector and all-round pavement scourge down in a part of the East End boondocks Amis has re-christened 'Diston', is the chalk to a cheese furnished by his 15-year-old mixed-race nephew, Des Pepperdine. The gulf that separates them is that of the deep romantic chasm and the austere classical cliff: the one polite, tolerant, studious and, as Lionel has effectively brought him up, beholden; the other violent, self-aware and warped.
Between them lies a secret, which is that Des has recently been seduced by his Beatle-loving 39-year-old grandmother, Grace. As Lionel scoops a £140m jackpot on the lottery and Des embarks on a charmingly conventional love-affair with his teenage sweetheart Dawn, the two principal stanchions of the plot creak into place. What will Lionel do to himself with the money; and what will he do to Des if he finds out about his errant mum?
Money, Amis's undisputed masterpiece from 1984, had some immensely prescient things to say, or imply, about nascent celebrity-cum-tabloid culture and its effects on individual and collective intelligence.
This is Lionel Asbo's theme, 28 years later. Yet the materials and the approach - necessarily, Amis would argue - are a whole lot cruder.
Ghastly but intermittently (like all Amis hero-villains) lovable, Lionel is a clever man who ought to know better but chooses not to, and is, we infer, encouraged by the world he inhabits.
His drawback as a character is that his utterances are so over-loaded with satirical freight that the reader simply disbelieves in him.
John Self's great virtue was that the qualities Amis wanted you to detect, to deplore or merely be amused by, arrived by stealth.
Amis's biographer Richard Bradford's best chapters turned on the similar compact that Amis junior established with the late Christopher Hitchens (to whom this book is dedicated) during their mid-1970s tenure on the New Statesman. It is no disrespect to Martin Amis to say that this style, so effective in its 1980s heyday, is showing its age.
If one of the things which rises in Lionel Asbos is the sense of a terrific disgust with the modern world, then another is a feeling of profound weariness.
The satirist's tragedy is that he grows old.