Although Martin Amis’s new novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, has received mixed reviews, it would be hard to argue that it lacks vividly drawn characters, a compelling storyline, or distinctive prose. Perhaps the legitimate complaint is that the title character, Lionel Asbo, falls a bit short on charm.
In fact, Asbo is willfully anti-intellectual, with the bonus that his personality deteriorates from there, stopping off at cruel for his baseline mode—though it can’t be denied that he expresses himself creatively, at times. He makes his living as a small-time crook amid small-time crooks, until he wins big money in the lottery and becomes a wealthy jerk instead.
Asbo might never have read the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but his nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, keeps his eye on transcendence. Desmond succumbs to poor judgment in adolescence due to substandard familial leadership, but he pursues an education and desires a loving family instead of a mean one. This is the main source of tension in the book—Desmond wants to improve, but Lionel wants to drag him into a dark corner and keep him there for good.
If Martin Amis has made a mistake, it amounts to having written a relentless novel about characters equipped with flaws that some readers may prefer not to explore. But if Lionel Asbo: State of England, can be panned by critics, then quite a few novelists might have to take up Twitter, because they may never write a book as vivid and memorable as this one.