16/06/2012

decline and fall

Martin Amis – Lionel Asbo

Is Martin Amis a prose stylist too heavily mortgaged to his own style? It occurs to you, reading his new novel Lionel Asbo, that the trade-mark melopeia of his language really isn't equal to the celebrutality of modern England, its grotty decadence – too mannered, too prone to devolving on itself lyric finesse; well-tooled, when so much that it wants to describe is shabby, rough-edged and maladroit. Dickens could ascend to the High Style when the fit was on him, but his style was, au fond, born of low-slung journalese, siphoning its energies from the vernacular. Amis – reaching for a Dickensian amplitude and gusto – seems instinctively to revert to a miniaturist precision, a delicacy of registrement, that is almost, yes, Austenesque. And somehow wanly apolitical. The lovely mellowness of his previous novel The Pregnant Widow owed itself in large part to the four-ply style, a pitch and poise in the line, balance in each perfectly chased sentence. What a state-of-England novel needs – and Lionel Asbo doesn't have, regrettably – is a kind of in-built preparedness to destroy itself, a cannibal language, self-consuming, rabid as society is rabid. A rhetorical stave like this one might or might not be an effective bit of writing, but it's unassigned écriture– where is 'the world of the manifest', as Amis calls it?:

In Diston – in Diston everything hated everything else, and everything else, in return, hated everything back. Everything soft hated everything hard, and vice versa, cold fought heat, heat fought cold, everything honked and yelled and swore at everything, and all was weightless, and all hated weight.

British culture in the main is an anti-poem, a consumerist Cloaca Maxima, an unholy orgy of money-grubbing, vulgarity and bottomless hypocrisy. The literary – capital 'L', as Amis would understand it, as a value-system among other things – has been all but extinguished. Every novel must be its own valediction. No more Dunciads. Now get out of that.

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