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Martin Amis and the underclass

16 June 2012

1:30 PM

16 June 2012

1:30 PM

New Martin Amis novels haven’t always received a fine reception of late. So much so that even tepid praise now reads generously. In the current magazine Philip Hensher reviews the latest, Lionel Asbo, and closes by declaring it, ‘not as bad as I feared.’ Having just finished it I think there is much more to recommend it than that.

Not least because it is such a good attempt at satirising our almost un-satirise-able modern Britain. There aren’t many novelists who can make you laugh at the strange thing this country has become. But Amis does, and often.

The London borough of ‘Diston’ where most of the action is set is as good a description as any of the state of the underclass in Britain (the people who used to be the working class until the working class were imported and those they replaced paid not to work). Diston Town is many things in Amis’s description, but what it adds up to is a place ‘where calamity made its rounds like a postman.’

Amis’s depiction of the strange moral damage that has been done to, and by, a whole class of people interestingly and repeatedly echoes many observations of the great Theodore Dalrymple. Not least in the devastating portrayal of people who understand themselves by curiously separating their selves from their actions (and the consequences of those actions). So the title character, a violent lout who wins the lottery, tells his nephew early in the novel, ‘I’m not going to stand there at the gates for a fucking fortnight, am I. Think of the effect that’d have on me temper.’ As though he and his temper are two different things and the temper, over which he can have no control, is something with absolute control over him.

The ‘culture’ of celebrity is also nicely diced. Once Lionel wins the lottery he becomes a media star whose every movement is followed by a nation and media hooked on the nihilistic fiction we now term ‘reality’. Describing how Lionel’s nephew and his girlfriend ‘always knew exactly what [Lionel] was up to’ Amis writes: ‘They stayed abreast of his remarkably unvarying activities (fights, expenditures, admissions, ejections), hour by hour, in the tabloids (and in the Daily Telegraph).’
The wave of unreality is constant. Sitting in the bar of a smart hotel in London we read of the ‘affectless TV screens’ assaulting the clientele with a looping bombardment of images: ‘Laurel and Hardy, tsunami, Popeye, September 11, royal wedding, Pinocchio, volcano, Mandingo, martyrdom video, Thriller, Godzilla…’
And nor is it, contrary to what many people often find in Amis’s fiction, entirely heartless. There is a moving description of Grace, the grandmother, dying.  ‘Her oystery eyes were open, and straining up into the red rinds of the lids, with terror, as if she was falling over backward. Falling over backward and trying to see if there was anyone there to catch her when she fell.’
There is no one there to catch her, nor any of the other characters in the novel.  But the few characters who can be redeemed and who are, manage the task only by redeeming themselves.

In Craig Brown’s classic spoof ‘The Marsh-Marlowe Letters’ one of his characters amusingly suggests an A-Level question asking ‘To what extent is Martin Amis an overtly moral writer?’  Perhaps the answer, after all these years, has become: ‘to quite a large extent, actually.’

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