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State of decay
Martin Amis' latest might not be one of his best, but it's still a very readable meditation on the underbelly of English society.
Good prose, as George Orwell once famously put it, is like a windowpane. In its transparency, it aims to depict a clear and authentic picture of the world beyond for the reader. This defining simile, pretty much a cornerstone of the realist manifesto for ages, still survives. And for good reason, too. But what about that other category of 'good prose' - where the window-pane itself comes adorned with an intricate arabesque of shapes and forms distinct from reality? Or, how about when what the reader perceives isn't a window-pane at all, but a kaleidoscopic mirror - producing pattern after pattern of a different reality at the creator's behest? Well, this is the level - some steps above good prose;some steps below good poetry - where novelist Martin Amis typically operates. And so it is to his style that the discerning reader first turns. Matters more mundane such as plots, settings and characters, can just wait.
In an early interview, Amis said that he prefers writers who have "at the base of their prose something called the English sentence. " So much of Amis's own writing comes out of this dictum. As in the case of his new novel Lionel Asbo, which at first glance appears to be a tale of a criminalturned-multi-millionaire-celebrity;and which at second glance reads like a satirical, semi-dystopian, 'state-ofthe-nation novel. ' But, soon it's brought to light that here, too, language matters more than the world.
Asbo, a garden-variety Amis character, is a violent psychopath - who "looked brutally generic... in certain lights and settings he resembled Wayne Rooney. " Asbo wins just under £140 million in a national lottery, and is shot headlong into the shallow world of fame and celebrity. His nephew, the central character of the novel, is the parentless Desmond Pepperdine, who has lived with Asbo ever since childhood and has excellent reasons to fear his uncle's wrath. This much for the skeletal form of it all.
Lionel Asbo is subtitled 'State of England, ' and not much is lost if you replace it with the phrase, 'State of English. ' Amis's fictional world-city, Diston - "a world of italics and exclamation marks" - is in decay. And this decay is primarily symbolised by an atrophy of the written and the spoken language.
With an obsessive's attention to detail, the narrator of Lionel Asbo lingers upon the way citizens of Diston speak or write. The pronunciations are made relevant: "Lionel pronounced 'myth' miff... his verbal prose and his accent were in steep decline. Until a couple of years ago Lionel pronounced 'Lionel' Lionel. But these days he pronounced 'Lionel' Loyonel, or even Loyonoo. "
The language of the tabloid press pervades the very narrative, as it progresses by fits and starts, replete with garish newspaper headlines and journalese (and breaking into parenthetical asides every single paragraph. ) This stylistic compromise, to some extent, explains why Lionel Asbo lacks the force of Amis' previous literary dynamites like Money, Time's Arrow and London Fields.
But then those earlier novels were authored by a younger, more energetic, and a free-wheeling Amis. The current book, on the other hand, reads like the product of a seasoned artistic sensibility. Here, for instance, is Amis' description of a first-time father looking at an incubator with his just-born baby girl inside, "He gazed down with horror at the thing-alive beneath its dome of deep glass... its limbs waving as mindlessly as the limbs of a beetle flipped on to its back. "
And here is Amis portraying a dying person, not, by any means, the easiest scene to write: "Her oystery eyes were open, and straining up into the red rinds of the lids, with terror, as if she was falling over backward... and trying to see if there was anyone there to catch her when she fell. "
This is not to say that the old form, the vintage Amis, is on the wane. It's there alright, but is only fleetingly visible in Lionel Asbo, and is usually sensed on the elementary plane of the adjective: 'an anarchic yawn, ' 'a logarithmic debt, ' 'free-fall pantomime of doom. '
John Updike excelled in the fusion of the high and the low. Masterfully, he took a small-town wreck, Rabbit Angstrom, and endowed him with a rich - Updike's own - consciousness. Amis' major protagonists have been similar in relation to their author. Sometime later in Lionel Asbo, young Desmond begins to perceive this new inner voice, the voice of his consciousness - the authorial voice: "He was having a conversation with what seemed to be a higher intelligence. The voice was cleverer than he was. It even had a better accent. " Within a racket of inarticulate noises that fills most of our modern lives, most of our pop-culture, and therefore most of Lionel Asbo, it is this voice of higher intelligence that we strain so hard to hear. The voice is imperceptible and faint, but let's be grateful that it's there at all.
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