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Martin Amis and Zadie Smith

New Novels of the London Year

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Martin Amis’s protagonist in his most recent novel, Lionel Asbo, changed his last name from Pepperdine to Asbo after he’d spent significant time in English prisons.  Since he’s been repeatedly identified as suffering from “Anti-Social Behavior Orders,” his new name reflects his honesty—calling a spade a spade—his down-to-earth response to the world around him.  He’s six years older than his nephew, Desmond or Des, who Lionel has more-or-less raised since the boy’s mother (Lionel’s sister) died.  That surrogate fathering might more accurately be called “hit-or-miss” than “more-or-less,” since Lionel’s egocentrism rarely permits him to think about anyone other than himself.

The setting of Amis’s fifteenth novel is a satellite town called Diston, somewhere near London, run-down, and largely given over to the less advantaged, the unemployed and poorly educated—the failed result of Britain’s social engineering.  Des, who narrates the story, refers to the town as a place where fertility rates are “six children per couple—or per single mother” with life expectancy somewhere between Benin and Djibouti. These statistics are important because Lionel’s mother had her first child at twelve, followed by six more by five different men.  Lionel was the last; all the others were males, except for one sister, Cilla, who was Des’s mother, also pregnant at twelve and dead by the time Des is the same age.

Gran—Lionel’s mother and Des’s grandmother—is thirty-nine at the beginning of the novel which begins with Des’s confession (written to a lonely hearts columnist in the local newspaper), “I’m having an affair with an older woman.  She’s 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!”

That’s on page one of Lionel Asbo, and Des is frightened to death that his uncle will learn about the relationship and go absolutely bonkers.  He’s done that many times before, including after he learned that another young man Des’s age also had sex with his mother—or so he believes.  More often, when he’s been upset, he trashes the immediate environment wherever he finds himself—say a restaurant, on one occasion resulting in so much damage with the rest of his friends and family that the total costs amount to more than half a million £s.  That incident, however, is after he’s won the lottery (for £140 million) and can afford to reimburse the restaurant.  It was the earlier times when he trashed the premises of some public space and ended up, repeatedly, in jail.  Think of Lionel as one of those guys in the United Kingdom who goes bonkers after a soccer game and begins destroying any property in his wake.

Once Lionel is fabulously rich he becomes a public figure.  The media can’t get enough of his anti-social antics.  He’s referred to as a “lottery lout” and as a “jackpot jailbird” and delights in living up to his stereotype.  Yet—for all his limited education and slaughtering the King’s English—he has enough savvy to pick an economic team to manage his finances that make him even richer.  Des describes him on one occasion as “Pickwickian, vaudevillian, aglow with combustible bonhomie.”  Lionel spends his money lavishly, has a very public affair with a women who sees herself as a poet.  All along, he’s attentive to Des’s progress as a young man from the tenements, who has distanced himself from them and focused on education.

As Lionel continues to stay center in the public’s eye, Des matures, gets a good education, marries, and becomes a father (not necessarily in that order).  Yet, he’s still afraid that his uncle will learn about the brief fling he had with his grandmother and, for legitimate reasons, he worries about Lionel’s pit bulls (Jak and Jek).  At times his uncle parks them with his nephew for a weekend or a few days.  Lionel’s kept pit bulls since his earlier criminal years, claiming that they’re needed for his work.  Jak and Jek are variously referred to as psychotic and suffering from “canine Tourette’s,” no doubt because of Lionel’s feeding habits for the dogs.  Essentially, he starves them and then once they are so hungry that they’ll eat anything, he throws them steak laced with Tabasco sauce.

This is enough.  You get the picture, which isn’t very pretty.  Nor is the entire book, which I would call a mess.  Amis wants us to extrapolate from his sub-title (“State of England”) something about his contempt for the decline of English culture.  How can the media be so fascinated by Lionel Asbo, a perfect example of white trash?  Amis is apparently so down on England that he recently moved to Brooklyn.  All I can say is good luck.  Maybe when he writes his next novel it can be about Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian.  Trash, no matter where you look.

Zadie Smith’s NW covers much of the same territory as Lionel Asbo, namely adults who have attempted to rise above their childhood years in a council estate called Caldwell, where life was often violent, families broken, and good education  minimal. Smith has chosen to depict her characters as products of their environment, though it’s just as accurate to regard them as possessed by demons (especially failure and drugs) that still control them, even though they have been outwardly successful.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening section of the novel, largely focusing on Leah Hanwell, 35 years old and a social worker, who, because of her own complicated origins, feels empathy for others who are down-and-out.  Leah “loans” £30 to a woman who is close to her own age because the woman claims that her mother is ill and she needs that money for a taxi to get to the hospital.  It doesn’t take long for Leah’s husband, Michel, to realize that Leah has been cheated by the woman, probably on crack, who has developed a ruse to pray on people’s emotions and trick them out of their money.  Leah herself was a wild child, frequently into drugs, so she feels a certain empathy with the woman who cheated her.  Moreover, Leah’s own career success and marriage to a decent and faithful man have become burdens because they have changed her identity.  Instead of just barely holding on, in theory, she is successful.

That success and its attendant happiness become her problem, just as it does for her life-long friend, Keisha Blake.  In Leah’s case, once she becomes pregnant, she has an abortion without telling her Michel, who nothing more than to be a father.  Furthermore, once she has aborted, Leah goes back on the pill—again without telling Michel.  Obviously, there are consequences of these secretive decisions, but on one level Leah is acting to reinforce the self-fulfilling prophecy that young women from the council estates can never be successful.

Keisha—who takes on the name Natalie as she gets older—is even more of a success story.  Leah’s white, which increases her chances of upward mobility; Natalie is black (of mixed heritage), yet with hard work at school, she eventually becomes a barrister, and (like her friend) half of what outsiders would call a very good marriage.  Frank, her husband, is devoted to her, hard working, and even better very good lucking.  So Natalie has also escaped the low expectations of her origins, and, as if to demonstrate that upward movement, devoted much of her legal work to defending the poor, the uneducated, the underclass that Amis and Smith write about so convincingly in both of these novels.

I’ll leave the commentary on the novel’s content at that.  What is perhaps most impressive about NW is the novel’s innovative form(s).  The first lengthy chapter uses a large font for exposition, but for dialogue, a smaller font.  The result is two differing narrations: one by summary, the other by speech, developing both by many short, numbered sections.  The second part of the novel (about a man named Felix who is determined to go cold turkey on his earlier substance abuse years) shifts the narration to something more conventional, intermixing summary and dialogue.  And the largest portion of the novel (beginning with Leah and Keisha/Natalie’s friendship as children) has 185 brief “chapters,” mostly “incidents” with revealing titles.  The pastiche of narrative forms is fast-paced and original, unlike just about any other novel I have ever read and, moreover, reinforces the identities of the characters themselves as their lives fall apart.

So this is London’s year, and Lionel Asbo and NW, in spite of their similarity in depicting marginalized characters, make it quite obvious that even though London is now touted as the economic capital pf the world, it still has a long way to go in lifting up those who have been left behind.  But isn’t that true of most Western countries today.

Martin Amis: Lionel Asbo: State of England

Knopf, 255 pp., $25.95

Zadie Smith: NW

Penguin: 401 pp., $26.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.