Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book Review: Lionel Asbo, State of England, by Martin Amis

This is the first, and so far only, book by Martin Amis I’ve read.

Lionel Asbo is the story of a working-class Brit career criminal who wins 140 million pounds in the lottery, while in jail, off of a ticket he stole, and had his nephew fill out and mail in.

ASBO is a Brit acronym for “Anti-social Behavior Order,” a fact that is alluded to very briefly in the book, and would be lost on Americans. You can learn more about it here. Essentially, it’s meant to be a court order against behavior that is not necessary illegal, but which is (you might guess) anti-social. Such as drinking too much. It’s similar, I suppose, to our restraining orders, but more broad. I suspect they would be unconstitutional in the US.

The book is written from the point of view of Lionel, and his nephew Desmond (Des), who is half black (not scoring him any points in the social echelon into which he was born). The book opens with Des writing a letter to the Brit counterpart of Dear Abby, because he’s having sexual relations with his grandmother. His grandmother, though, had seven children by the time she was eighteen (starting when she was twelve, as did Desmond’s mom, now dead), so she is only thirty nine while this is going on. This age acceleration is a constant in the book, as Asbo himself is only twenty-one, and his mother (Des’s grandmother) ends up in a home with some mental disorder at the age of about forty-two. Lionel speaks about that age as though it were unbelievably ancient. This is all part of the irony or satire that Amis uses to poke fun at the cultural abyss that is working-class Brit (and US) society.

One of the elements adding tension in the book is the fact that Lionel has done great violence to those having relations with his mother, and Des would prefer to keep it secret.

The book is often funny, unless you’re like me, and consider the culture of the western world to be . . . I don’t know . . . shit. Here’s a guy who is trying (unsuccessfully) to make a career from stealing other people’s things. When we meet him, he’s in jail for receiving stolen goods. His cell mate is in for having a fat dog. The same man popped a ligament getting up from the couch after watching TV for eleven hours. Lionel tells him, “you’ve got to brush up on you ideas, mate.” (sic).

Although certainly funny moments, I watched in horror as this completely psycho-socio-pathic monster is thrust into the world of men by virtue of the fact that he won a vast sum of money from a stolen ticket. He is thrown out of two very swanky hotels in London, and ends up in a hotel that caters to rock stars and other vermin. So they are used to the suddenly rich low-brow. At least the rock star (arguably) has a talent for which there is high demand, warranting the large sums of money they have. Lionel, on the other hand, has done nothing. He has actually done less than nothing, because by all rights, he should be in the penitentiary for a long time. Live, even. He is a murderer and a parasite on society. Nevertheless, through no efforts of his own, he becomes rich and famous. This itself is a comment on popular culture (if the word “culture” can rightly be used).

In contrast, Des is very intelligent, goes to school, marries, gets a good job as a journalist, and starts a family. He is the only one who is not standing with his hand out to get some of his uncle Li’s money. In fact, all he wants from uncle Li is use of the room in their tiny flat, which Lionel uses to store stolen property, for their baby’s nursery. Uncle Li, of course, is so self-centered and sociopathic, that he refuses the request. He does pay the rent, but it has strings.

Buried in the story is Lionel’s sexual deviancy. For one, he prefers porn to actual women. “You know where you are with porn.” But when he becomes rich he is pursued by women. He has his DILFs and MILFs (divorcees I’d like to fuck, and moms I’d like to fuck, respectively). But it seems that he can’t have relations with them without beating them up. Bad. This will be his undoing. This may well be the part of the book that requires the most in-depth examination and analysis, but I’m not able to do it.

Amis is a Brit writer living in the US. The story and the language are very Brit. I don’t suppose he can help it. So, there are some Brit references (not the least of which is ASBO) that Americans will miss. You will generally understand the dialogue, but don’t expect to understand everything in the book.

I found the book to be entertaining and funny. But it’s also disturbing and difficult. There were times when I had to go back to see if I missed something, and there were times when I had to read a paragraph two or three times to figure out what he’s saying. There are a couple paragraphs that I had to give up on and move along. Although humorous and ironic in places, it’s not an easy read.

Did I like the book? Not really. I thought the premise was good, and that it had a lot of potential. I was hoping for an important literary work. And although it had moments that satisfied that, I found the language to be often uninteresting and nearly opaque. I never settled into a flow. I felt that reading it was uncomfortable. Not for its subject or message, which I'm in accordance with, but for the sometimes unclear way it was written.

Should you read it? Yeah, you probably should, for the same reason I read Atlas Shrugged: So you can talk about it at dinner parties.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

What is Literary Fiction?

When a person decides to become a writer, one of the things they have to do is decide what kind of writer they will be. That is, in what genre will they write. And pick you must. You must be able to tell a prospective agent what genre your novel is. (And whatever you do, don’t tell them that your great work defies genre. You will look like an amateur and a fool.) I’ve decided to write literary fiction. Why? Because that’s how I am and what I read. And as they say, always write what you know, and read widely in your chosen genre.

As easy as it sounds, though, it is not all that simple to choose the right genre for your book. But you really must know before you start; each genre has its own structure. Certain things are supposed to happen at certain times in a story, depending on its genre. Oh, you’re an artist, you say. You are not bound by these rules. It stifles your creativity. Wrong. Ignore the genre and its structure, and you will never publish.

There are two types of fiction: genre and literary. So, what makes a novel literary? There’re a lot of opinions about that, and a lot of disagreement. Some say that genre is plot-driven, and literary is character-driven. (Whatever that means) People who read genre expect an exciting plot, while literary fiction can explore character, and delve into philosophical questions. So, does literary fiction lack a plot? No.

Maybe literary fiction comes about with the use of fancy words and flowery language. No. Please. 

The cynical will say that literary fiction is fiction that doesn’t sell. Well, if that were true, why are we talking about it? Why are there hundreds of agents who represent literary fiction? Sure, it sells less than genre, but that’s okay. Pop music sells more than classical, but that doesn’t mean that pop is better. Most of it is pure, unadulterated crap. 

I believe that the only material difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is that in literary fiction there is a meaning under the surface. Maybe symbolism, metaphor, or irony. The story has subtlety and nuance. In horror, for example, the story is meant to scare you. What happens is what happens, and that’s it. There’s no hidden meaning. 

Ever take a lit class? I still remember one of my favorite teachers in high school, Mr. Kent, who taught a series of such classes, saying, “Yes, but what does it mean?” When you read a horror novel, or a romance novel, you are not sitting around afterward asking yourself what it means. It’s right there. They may have decent characters, and they must have a driving plot, but there’s no nuance. No deep philosophical meaning.

For example, when a guy is stuck to a door with a knife in a horror flick, it’s just a guy stuck to the door. In a literary work, it could represent the crucifixion of Christ.

Back to plot-driven and character-driven. Some people interpret this to mean that a literary novel has no plot. This is not true, and it cannot be true. A lot of new writers who fancy themselves to be literary authors, just write pretty words about things. They describe events in flowery language. “Purple prose.” But nothing is really happening in the story. It lacks plot. If nothing happens, then there is no story. So, even a literary novel must have a plot.

Consider the works of Cormac McCarthy. These are without a doubt literary works. I’ve read that he’s being considered for a Nobel Prize. It don’t get more literary than that. Yet his books are full of violence. They contain many horrible, bloody, and terrifying moments. But they are not genre. Why not? Why are they not “thrillers?” The reason is, there’s more to the novel than what you see on the surface. (By the way, if you want to know how to write, read his books. His prose is as lean as prose can be. You will learn from it.)

A literary fiction novel must have a plot. The main character must start at point A and go to point B, and be changed in some way. It must still have a story arc. A climax. Resolution. It doesn’t have to hit you in the face, and any decent writer will be able to do it without it being obvious, but it must be there. It’s not necessary for there to be violence, a shootout, or a chase, but there has to be conflict, even if within the character’s mind. Without conflict there is no story.

One question that has haunted me is whether literary fiction can have supernatural elements. Can a vampire novel be a literary novel with vampires in it? Or does the presence of vampires mean that it is not literary, but horror by definition. Certainly the writing of a horror novel can be quite literary. That’s why I’ve seen the term “literary horror” being tossed around. But I’m not sure it’s a bona fide genre. I’ve been told by a professional in the industry that the mere presence of ghouls in my story means that it’s horror. By definition. (And since it doesn’t follow the structure of the genre, is unpublishable).

After giving that question careful consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that she’s right. Just as there’s no crying in baseball, there’re no ghouls in literary fiction.

Literary fiction can be violent, scary, funny, moving, just about anything you want, but not supernatural, unless it’s something imagined by the character.

So, what is a literary novel? 

  • A character-driven story (meaning it has a plot) that has meaning greater than the action on the surface
  • Grounded in realism. 
  • No supernatural or paranormal.
  • Clean writing, not flowery, no exaggerated gestures of facial expressions (“His mouth slowly curled into a half smile”)
  • Can be funny or scary

   What do you think?