Walter Kraut on Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo: State of England

Martin Amis in Cologne, Germany, in 2012. Credit: Maximilian Schoenherr

Can a writer create a character who is more stupid than himself? It’s a task that one of Britain’s foremost intellectuals, Martin Amis, sets himself in his latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England.

The character of the title talks like an idiot and Amis takes noticeable pleasure in describing his speech – Asbo acts like a brain-damaged hooligan and even finds the Sun too intellectual.

Asbo is a petty but ruthless criminal. He is one of seven siblings, most of them from different fathers who were, of course, absent when they grew up. While in jail, he learns that he has won an unfathomable sum of money in the lottery, which turns him from stupid into stupid and rich – and then into stupid, rich and famous, a social category much liked by the British tabloids. (And, you get the feeling, much despised by Amis.) But Lionel’s stupidity, you start to realise early on, is deliberate.

Most of the action is seen from the perspective of his younger, more intelligent nephew, Des Pepperdine. “The difference, it seemed, was one of attitude. Des loved . . . intelligence; and Lionel hated it. Hated it? Well, it was plain as day that he had always fought it, and took pride in being stupid on purpose.” It’s an easy way out for Amis and the wilfulness of Asbo’s stupidity somewhat takes the sting out of Amis’s criticism.

Lionel Asbo is written with energy and verve. It’s smart and entertaining but, as a satire, it slightly misses the mark. The problem with British society isn’t that people pretend to be stupid; it’s that most people are. But real stupidity, it seems, can’t be portrayed by a work of literary fiction. When a head is empty, it’s difficult to fill it with words.

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