I. Whooooo are you? Who-who? Who-who? Awwww….who the fuck are you?
No one has an identity crisis like the English. Visit modern London, and it seems that all the best things about the place have been stolen from elsewhere – the Elgin Marbles, lamb curry, Irish pubs. All these, the spoils of Britain’s vast dusk-defying reach, now seem to weigh heavily against native Englishness: who wants to eat sodden meat pies? Or look at haplessly sentimental pastorals of the midlands? Even the Royal Family – in its archaic, preposterous and essential Englishness – is German: the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha changed its name to the more British-sounding ‘Windsor’ in 1917. The English could, of course, look back at punk – their one truly sui generis musical offering (love and respect for Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Cream, but they all stole endless from African-American blues) – but, then, they’d have to face the fact that punk is dead, and – when it was alive – it fucking hated being English.
So the English get atavistic, as people do when they feel threatened – Julian Barnes demonstrates this rather elegantly in England, England – but, looking back, they find that matters get even worse. Take for example the language: modern English transmits the history of Britain’s invasions and defeats – Old Norse, Teutonic, Latin and Norman French. The only language that’s not really represented is the only indigenous language of the island, the Celtic language of the Britons. Or take the literature: British epics struggle – almost comically – to ret-con some Englishness into English history. Beowulf tries to force a hereditary connection between Scandinavian pagans and British Christians. Le Morte d’Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight imagine that Arthur, whose mother was Celtic, descended from the Roman line of Aeneas, thus linking England to Virgil and Homer. Now, of course, the modern-day Greeks – not to mention the Israelis, Iranians and Chinese – harbor the same fantasies of unbroken links to antiquity, but no one is more schizophrenic about it than the English; they know they want forefathers, but which ones? Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus plays on this anxiety with sadistic glee: England can’t decide if it wants to be stoic Roman aristocrats or crafty Gothic bad-asses, to say nothing of England’s troubled relationship with Christianity.
Barnes, when he wrote England, England, took a crack at a post-modern national epic: instead of ‘solving’ the problem of English identity, he made the crisis of identity the defining trait of Englishness. Barnes’ England is a nation in search of nationality; nothing is more English than the English’s desperate – almost infantile – need for belonging in their own skin. Barnes’ premier metaphor: a billionaire – Sir Jack Pitman – who designs the ultimate (autoerotic) Anglophile theme-park, built on the Isle-of-Wright, housing ‘all that is English’. When Pitman needs to unwind, he indulges himself at a very special brothel, one that allows him to live out his fantasy of being an infant (for a weird time, check-out: Autonepiophilia). Approaching the same problem in White Teeth, Zadie Smith took up and elevated the American style of Hysterical Realism. Her England – with its Pynchon-esque acronyms and ostentatiously writerly surnames, its frantic doubling and its high-comedic verbal acrobatics – defies the New Journalistic style of Tom Wolfe, but yet it doesn’t quite fold-up into the metaphorical satire of Barnes.
A decade later, the same massive question hangs over the same tiny island: can the novel take on a nation? (Full disclosure: I think not. The national epic is a no-win test, like the Special Forces drowning test – everyone drowns, nobody passes – or, if you like something more profoundly nerdy, the Kobayashi Maru. But some fail better – more charismatically, more inventively – than others.)
II. Who let the Dogs in? Who? Who?
Enter Martin Amis, whose father Kingsley led the (slightly drunken) post-war charge against British Modernism with Lucky Jim, a piss-and-vinegar ‘Angry Young Men’ narrative about a grumpy academic that abandoned formal experimentation for straight narrative and ignored epistemological doubt in favor of taking populist pop-shots at philosophical navel gazing and aristocratic pretensions. Lucky Jim is a wildly funny book, and Kingsley was a hell of a writer, but it’s hard not to feel for the younger Amis when you learn his father disowned him for dabbling in metafiction (i.e. when ‘Martin Amis’ appeared in Martin Amis’s Money).
Martin, as he came into his own, did more than dabble – take, for only one example, Time’s Arrow, which inverted Pynchon’s fundamental god-law of entropy, creating a Holocaust that features massive hospitals were Nazi doctors nurse the starving and emaciated back to health and sanity – and, since then, it has become fashionable to call him heir to both Joyce and Nabokov. It’s even possible – though it seems contradictory – to hear echoes of Beckett’s Molloy in Amis’ London Fields, “This is London and there are no fields.” Amis is one of the few writers – in the sheer scope of his absorption of the literary past – who could possibly put forward a novel that simultaneously manages encyclopedic mastery and the nihilistic void. And he could be funny, too.
So, assuming for a moment that the novel could – in theory – capture and transmit that colossal mass delusion we call the ‘nation’, Martin Amis would be a good candidate to write it. This, at least, is the unavoidable suggestion of Amis’ latest book which slaps us in the face with ‘State of England’ as a subtitle.
The novel – which abandons formal conceits for an anonymous and boisterously self-amused narrator (just a hair shy of ‘dear reader’, at several points) – is essentially, and perhaps surprisingly, an experimental in moral culpability. The question of the novel’s four epigraphs – variations on ‘Who Let the Dogs In?’ (no word on whether Amis is a fan of The Baha Men or Rugrats in Paris) – refer to what there is of the novel’s plot: Desmond Pepperdine, whose troubled mother has died young, is raised by his sociopathic debt-collecting uncle, Lionel (who has legally changed his last name to ASBO, for the ‘Anti-Social Behavior Order’ he received at ‘three years two days’ old). Desmond, we learn from the get-go, has been having an affair with his grandmother – Lionel’s mother – who, because she began her own procreative career at twelve, is not yet forty.
And here I must spoil and yet not spoil Amis’ finale.
At the novel’s end, after Lionel has won a quarter-billion US Dollar (one hundred and thirty nine million British pounds), and gone on a truly hysterical ride through conspicuous consumption and celebrity – complete with a vaguely Kardashian-esque social-climber/poetess named ‘Threnody’ (air-quotes included, leading to some interesting punctuation experiments when the press combines ‘Threnody’ and Lionel) – Lionel discovers Desmond’s secret. He has Marlon, a fellow criminal and one-time rival, sneak into Desmond’s apartment and let two vicious pit bulls (who Lionel has provoked to habitual viciousness with a diet of Tabasco) in from their balcony, whereupon they nearly kill Desmond’s infant daughter. But, unlike the violent climaxes in some of Amis’ other novels, nothing quite happens in Lionel Asbo. The dogs knock the infant into a hamper, where she remains safe and sound, while Desmond has a brief but largely inconsequential meltdown. When Desmond confronts Lionel – “Who? Who?” – Lionel answers him:
“Marlon,” said Lionel in momentary defeat, “The Floater. But that’s a uh, technicality, Think, Des. Did Marlon let the dogs in? Did I let the dogs in? No. You let the dogs in. You let the dogs in… you fucked me mum. And you me nephew.”
It’s a fairly stunning moral revelation from a thoroughly immoral wretch, shades of Bill’s ‘there are consequences to breaking the heart of a murderous bastard’ speech from Kill Bill: Volume 2. The novel’s all-seeing, ever-percolating prose has been building up to this moment for the entire novel, but the pay-off itself comes from the usually opaque Lionel. The scene is impressive, but it occurs in a vacuum of consequence; there are episodes of Friends that conclude more weightily. More importantly, though, is the question, what of the metaphor? Consider Rabbit as Updike’s America (however narrow) – in his emotional immaturity, in his inability to countenance change and his need, however childish or hypocritical, for a moral bedrock – and ‘the Swede’ as Roth’s America – in his naivety, in the blindness of his simplicity. Or, less subtle but more capacious, consider Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai, born at ‘the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence’. What is Amis attempting to traffic across the void, what of England does Lionel Asbo capture?
There are intimations. Amis – in his cryptic, Nabokovian mode – hints that both Lionel and Desmond have an ‘inner voice’, that is smarter and better than they are (Lionel’s ‘even has a better accent’ than his own speaking voice, which Amis mocks mercilessly with cruelly italicized Dickensian phonetics). When Lionel’s windfall removes his worldly obstacles, Lionel hears the ‘inner voice’ for the first time and we see – for a brief stretch in the novel’s second section – something like the Swede’s Rothian development of consciousness. But Lionel seems to overmaster the ‘inner voice’ – it doesn’t return, at least – in favor of his Id. This is not, in and of itself, a loss: Amis – again hinting, cryptically – gives us flashes of Lionel beginning to contemplate his sexuality. At first, he reflects only that he ‘frightens himself’ and then – in one (literally) spectacular scene – catches himself in the mirror. What is Lionel going to learn about himself? It should be good: Amis has never backed away from sexuality. (Compare, for example, the chapter long digression on the philosophy of sodomy and masochism in London Fields to Amis’s contemporaries; one brief rupture of decorum – one ‘cunt’ – sends Ian McEwan’s Atonement spinning for hundreds of pages, England, England has the all-over-feel of holding back, it is never quite as nasty as it needs to be when it needs to be). But Lionel never quite gets to the bottom of it, discovering only that there ‘needs to be pain’ in his sexuality.
III. That’s Entertainment (i.e. forget The Who, how about The Jam?)
Would it be profitable, then, to say that this is England? A vague appreciation of its own sadism? An intriguing conceit: that England, having had every other aspect of its identity whittled away – by modernization (Desmond’s Diston is lyrically shitty, post-industrial by Dante) and the collapse of Empire, by ethnic stratification and strife, by economic acceleration and collapse – finally falls back on a hardened sadistic solipsism: I inflict, therefore I am. Or, could we take Desmond – at one remove from Lionel – as our allegorical man? Certainly his identity crisis – he is at once heir to the ‘deep England’ of Lionel’s beleaguered bloodline, but also to the ‘outer England’ of his black ancestry – would serve figuratively. But, what of it? Some sort of neo-conservative screed against entitlement, a Thatcherite call for personal responsibility and sexual decorum? It could be. Shit happens all the time: authors get old and grumpy, the world bewilders – or simply annoys – them (for one embarrassing example: Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons).
But this allegorical rigging doesn’t catch any wind. Or, at least, it can’t catch up to Smith’s hyperbolic attempt – embracing the ridiculousness of the trying to ‘capture’ England in the process of trying to do it anyway – or Barnes’s clever, but somewhat formulaic, metaphorical one – a Jurassic Park, with similar results, for an extinct identity. Many critics – when they muster the bravery to say anything bad about Amis – have pointed out that much of Lionel Asbo is cruel, misogynistic and racist, delivered in spellbindingly good prose: Lionel’s bone-deep racism, the appearance of a Pakistani character for the sole purpose of throwing acid in the face of a young woman, the repeated conflation of pre-teen (twelve!) pregnancy with mixed-race coupling (Desmond’s black father, whom he sees once, is only seen unconscious on a bench). If anything, Lionel is a metaphor for Amis himself: regardless of the currents of his fame, he remains unchangingly and sadistically clear-eyed about the world. The idea of a ‘State of England’ novel is, at the end, a delusion – the fragmented comedy of Amis’s latest novel is a joke on the reader who expects a national epic – but Amis suggests how you might look for what’s really there beneath that delusion. Like the late Christopher Hitchens – to whom Lionel Asbo is dedicated – you dispatch with false narratives, however comforting. You look with a little sneer, and a little laugh, and try to write well what you see.
Ultimately, Lionel Asbo is that bastard twin of ‘literature’: entertainment. Like the referent of the terrible pun in the title of this article – Absolutely Fabulous, a brilliant and brilliantly pointless show, a satire in search of a target – Amis has jokes, will travel. The novel – and, I imagine, the next one (wherein Amis will say what there is to say about Brooklyn, his new home) – is like the late-career offering of an aging virtuoso. An Eric Clapton or a Sony Rollins who – having survived overdoses, scandals, romantic and critical failures – occasionally show up at a benefit concert or as a guest artist and just fucking shred, ripping through scales and changes for the unconcealed, unadorned and masturbatory joy of it. Just to prove they can. You could say worse things about an artist. And so as literature we may call Lionel Asbo a ‘minor novel’ – a politick way of saying it’s a failure – but, as writers, it’s a failure we’d be lucky to call our own.