LIONEL ASBO: STATE OF ENGLAND
Jonathan Cape, $27.95
Lionel Asbo, the 13th novel by Martin Amis, takes its title from the name of a career criminal in London who has a physical resemblance to the footballer Wayne Rooney and wins a fortune on the National Lottery.
The plot turns on Lionel's troubled relationship with his nephew, Desmond, who at 15 had sex with his grandmother, Lionel's own mother, then aged 39.
Lionel welcomes his frequent spells in prison as a good place ''to get your head sorted out'' and declares that Des is betraying his ''own class'' by working as a crime reporter for a local newspaper, with the narrative centering on Des' attempts to escape from his unpleasant past through university education, work and love.
But the characters themselves are not particularly interesting or believable, and the book's power turns more on the way Amis revels in the general nastiness of life in the self-proclaimed ''world city'' of London, with its rampant celebrity culture and vulgar tastes.
The funniest parts of the novel derive from its black humour, the way the suddenly enriched Lionel drinks champagne out of a beer glass and lives in an expensive apartment complex with rock stars, fashion models and those who make their way in the world by capacities other than ''work of mind''.
Underlying the satire here are many traditional literary echoes, from Charles Dickens, Philip Larkin and other writers, and there is a slight sense of smugness that hinders Amis' portrayal of this London suburban wasteland, as if he were looking down on and judging his characters from a great height. Part of the novel's lyrical conclusion involves a sense of humans becoming like animals and vice versa: Des is said to have ''the mind of a London fox'' and to experience the foxlike sensations of ''anxiety, hunger and shelterlessness''.
But the book's most compelling aspects come not from these moral sensitivities but from its sense of extravagant ferocity, in particular its salacious portrait of the central villain, who voluntarily changes his name on his 18th birthday to the British acronym for ''Anti-Social Behaviour Order'', in honour of his own ASBO at the age of three for the application of explosives to excrement. Lionel fears losing his ASBO ''record'' to a two-year-old who is already in trouble with the law for striping cars with a door key, and the novel works through this kind of rhetoric of extravagance, comically supplanting one ghoulish horror with the next.
Lionel Asbo is dedicated to Amis' friend, Christopher Hitchens, who died last year, and if Hitchens' work critiqued Britain from a social and political perspective, so Amis, who has followed Hitchens into American exile and now lives in New York, dissects his native country in a more self-consciously literary light.
The book's subtitle is State of England, and it involves a consideration of how its central theme of incest becomes symptomatic of the inward-looking condition of England itself. Lionel vows that he will ''never set foot outside my motherland'', and the book provocatively aligns the hero's fixation upon his own mother with a state of mental, as well as literal, imprisonment.
Earlier in his career, Amis wrote two great novels, Money and London Fields, where the darkness of his vision went beyond mere personal bile to imply the more sinister, mechanised aspects of the modern world. Lionel Asbo is not in this class but is an amusing and darkly stylish work that will reinforce Amis' reputation as an interesting minor novelist.