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Review: Martin Amis Returns to London with 'Lionel Asbo: State of England'

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No matter how good or bad it turns out to be, a new Martin Amis novel always causes a stir in the literary pages. If it’s one of his better efforts then it’s heralded as a modern classic, before it’s even out of the shrink wrap; if it falls short, then the knives are out and sharpened even quicker. Most of the time his books fall somewhere in between – and then you can cue the articles on how Amis has failed to live up to his towering reputation (again).

With Lionel Asbo: State of England: A Novel Amis has clearly opted for the more-is-more school of book titling, but its contents fall firmly within that middle bracket. This isn’t classic Amis – despite the comparisons with Money and London Fields on the cover – but neither is it an abject failure. Instead it offers us a glimpse of his talent, but buries it beneath flamboyance and authorial ego, those twin cornerstones of Amis’s recent output. At times it’s smart, and incisive, and startlingly original – but most of the time its main subject is just how smart (and incisive, and original) Amis can be. Forget the titular Lionel Asbo: this novel’s main protagonist is Martin Amis.

If that makes Lionel Asbo sound indulgent, however, then we shouldn’t underestimate just how much fun it is. Amis and fun rarely go hand in hand, but here you can almost see his wry grin on the pages, with a malicious gleam settling into his eye. Lionel Asbo is an unabashed satire on the state of modern England (hence the middle stanza of that unwieldy title), and Amis launches himself at his targets with unrestrained glee. Some of his targets are scandalously obvious – tabloid queen Danube is clearly meant to be British model, and ‘novelist’, Jordan – others are less so, but they’re all equally barbed and grotesque. Amis has already been criticized for his elitist attacks on the working class, but both the rich and the poor are in his crosshairs here. What he truly lays siege to is pretence and ignorance – and he finds plenty of that in modern England to fuel his fire.

There’s a crudeness and brutality to much of the satire in Lionel Asbo, and some readers may find it a tough dish to swallow – but it’s encouraging to see Amis laying waste to his targets with such abandon again. What it lacks in subtlety and finesse, it (almost) makes up for in sheer exuberance. While it won’t rank among his finest achievements when the reaper finally comes, Lionel Asbo at least offers us an amusing – and cutting – satirical romp that’s every bit the pageturner. And there aren’t many Amis novels you can say that about.

Lionel Asbo: State of England: A Novel is available now from all good bookstores, and the Random House website, priced $25.95.