SOME BOOKS are written to satisfy reader's expectations, and there's nothing wrong with that. Tension ratchets up until the murderer is discovered; mid-life crises are weathered, or dissolve into bland epiphany; a love story terminates in death or babies. There's a comfort in being rocked along by a story's predictable shape—and, of course, within a familiar structure, endless variations of humor and insight and character can thrive.
But Martin Amis' Lionel Asbo: State of England is a reminder of just how satisfying it can be to have one's expectations thwarted. It's an entirely different sort of book, one that inspires genuine curiosity—reading it is like bumping blindfolded through a room you thought you knew. Nothing's quite where it should be, it's a little bit stressful—and even as it's leaving you disoriented and a bit panicky, it's funny.
Title character Lionel Asbo is a council flats thug, a swaggering bully whose only redeeming quality is a barely articulated affection for his orphaned nephew, Desmond. As the novel opens, 15-year-old Desmond is composing a letter to his favorite advice columnist:
I'm having an affair with an older woman. Shes' a lady of some sophistication, and makes a refreshing change from the teen agers I know (like Alektra for example, or Chanel.) The sex is fantastic and I think I'm in love. But ther'es one very serious complication and i'ts this; shes' my Gran!"
Yes, poor Desmond is having sex with his grandmother, his uncle's mother. (He's also self-educated, and hasn't quite gotten to the punctuation portion of his schooling.) Lionel, Desmond rightly intuits, might object to the knowledge of this affair; the secret sits with Desmond throughout the book, adding a tense undercurrent of anxiety to Desmond's every interaction with Lionel.
And there are many interactions with Lionel: A few years later, he wins the lottery. Full of class hatred and violent impulses he's not accustomed to checking, Lionel crashes the gates of the wealthy, a lifestyle change that doesn't quite suit him. "The rich world... is heavy," he explains to a journalist. "Everything weighs. Because it's here for the duration. It's here to stay... And my old world... it's light! Nothing weighs an ounce! People die! It, things—fly away!... So that's me challenge. To go from the floating world... to the heavy."
Meanwhile, Des is getting on with his life keeping that old sercet guarded close. These two very different characters provide two distinct windows into Amis' exaggeratedly aweful version of Britain. The book is packed with detail, with names and newspaper accounts and poetry and Amis' showoffy dialogue; this scaffolding of satire props up observations about class, about money, about the way poverty thwarts imagination and intellect, the way unearned wealth does the same.
There came a point, toward the end of the novel, where I had to set the book down for a while, because suddenly one of the recurring lines Amis litters through the text revealed its meaning. I can't think the last time I had to put down a novel because it was stressing me out, but anxiety runs through this book like an electrical current—quietly humming, getting things done, occasionally freaking everyone the fuck out. The anxiety is there on purpose, part and parcel of life: "Des assumed that this feeling would one day subside, this riven feeling, with its equal parts of panic and rapture. Not soon, though. The thing was that he considered it a perfectly logical response to being alive."