Too much is made of literature's ennobling qualities. There are those of us who come to books for the debasement and danger, for Hannibal and Humbert. For Faulkner's Popeye and Hedda Gabler. We want to meet the monsters.
And monsters are Martin Amis' specialty. Amis traffics in pathologies — people who are born bad and get worse, Disney villains with crazy names and sexual predilections. Enter Lionel Asbo, antihero and antagonist of Amis' newest book. This savant of sociopaths was declared "uncontrollable" at 18 months and slapped with his first restraining directive at 3 years old. He's even changed his name to match his sentence ("Asbo" stands for Anti-Social Behavior Order). Lionel now handles the "very hairiest end of debt collection" with the assistance of two pit bulls that he raises on a diet of hot sauce, regular beatings and beer. His nephew and ward, Desmond, is a Dickensian naif: a wide-eyed orphan bent on self-improvement but dabbling in a little trouble of his own: The teenager is having an affair with his grandmother and is terrified that Lionel will find out.
It's a terrific setup, a taut mousetrap ready to go off. But the trap never snaps. Lionel Asbo is essentially five characters in search of a plot. Lionel wins 140 million pounds in the lottery, and the plot quickly becomes a litany of the ridiculous ways he spends his money, allowing Amis to indulge in his most unfortunate tendency: cruelly caricaturing poor people. His reproofs are ripped from Bill Cosby's infamous "pound cake" speech: The poor stay poor because of their laziness, obesity and drunkenness, their propensity to give their children silly names, their butchering of the English language. It's that last sin that he really can't abide. He devotes a mystifying amount of attention on Lionel's pronunciation. Every time Lionel says a word ending in "k," Amis spells it out phonetically so we won't miss how he mangles it.
It's a shame. These politics are harnessed to electric prose. There's not one limp or lazy sentence to be found. Amis may not be compassionate, but he's also never boring, and he makes the neighborhood of Diston come to life "with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste. Diston — a world of italics and exclamation marks." And the burlesques take away from Amis' more intriguing (and vastly more temperate) thesis. More than any other book in recent memory, Lionel Asbo is a book about newspapers, about their power to function as a mirror to society, how they tell us (and influence) the stories we tell about ourselves.
Everywhere in Lionel Asbo, characters are buried in newsprint. Desmond's grandmother's great passion (other than Desmond) is the Telegraph's cryptic crossword. Desmond writes to The Sun's "Agony Aunt" to confess his affair and ask for help. He reads of Lionel's crimes in the papers and experiences his great intellectual awakenings when he encounters his first "proper" newspapers, The Times and The Guardian — naturally, he grows up to be a reporter. Lionel becomes the darling — and prey — of the very tabloids he adores when he wins the lottery. England's great and sleazy papers all have a part to play in the novel, and Amis carefully catalogs the devolution of journalism, how "News in Briefs" sections featuring topless models have edged out actual reporting.
The historian Benedict Anderson wrote that it was newspapers that first allowed people to imagine themselves as a nation; newspapers created the first joint narrative. Everywhere in Lionel Asbo we see this to be true, but with a chilling corollary. Do we become what our newspapers tell us we are? In Lionel Asbo, the characters tailor their behavior to match the vulgarity of their papers. It's a trend that one feels Amis minds — but not too much. It gives him so many wonderful monsters to play with.
Parul Sehgal is an editor at The New York Times Book Review. You can follow her on Twitter: @parul_sehgal.