Martin Amis: A fine writer who makes recurrent but unsuccessful attempts to break into a new vein
The greatest writers never write the same book twice. Lesser writers write the same book many times. Martin Amis is caught between these two positions, as a fine writer who makes recurrent but unsuccessful attempts to break out into a new vein, and so become a genuinely great writer.
Lionel Asbo embodies a type of English lower-class youth — criminal, violent (yet also prone to bouts of sentimentality), unreflective, habitually saturated with alcohol (yet rarely incapacitated by drink), addicted to the lowest and harshest pleasures, blindly devoted to the barbarous justice of retaliation, on principle estranged from anything gentle, subtle or humane:
Out in the great world city, there were hundreds of thousands of young men who looked pretty much like Lionel Asbo. In certain lights and settings he resembled, some said, the England and Manchester United prodigy, striker Wayne Rooney: not exceptionally tall, and not fat, but exceptionally broad and exceptionally deep . . .
Above all Lionel and his type are people on whom life is wasted because they are determined never to profit from experience. As Lionel himself says, in the course of the riotous best man's speech he delivers at the wedding of his lifelong friend and petty criminal colleague, Marlon Welkway: "I was more headstrong. I wouldn't learn. For me, for me that's a point of principle. Never learn."
Lionel's imperviousness to experience is tested by a massive lottery win. Almost by accident, he receives £139,999,999.50. This is Great Expectations, but with Magwitch swapping places with Pip. Suddenly Lionel's world is thronged with what in advertisements we are often told are the "finest things in life", but which (it becomes clear) are equally at home in an existence of abject impoverishment. For, heroic in his unswerving devotion to coarseness, Lionel emerges triumphant from this temptation to change his life for the better. Now astonishingly rich, he duplicates the immiserated life he had led in the brutal suburb of Diston, but with different materials: Dom Perignon, rather than Cobra lager; expensive restaurants, rather than KFC; Bentleys and Ferraris rather than his soot-smeared white van. Instead of running a sideline as a receiver of stolen goods, he now employs teams of rapacious "investment advisers" to enlarge his wealth. He buys a country house, and renames it Wormwood Scrubs after his favourite prison, the prison where he feels most at home. Lionel likes prison, because, as he says many times in the course of the novel, you know where you are in prison. Whether or not Lionel is actually "inside", in another sense he is perpetually imprisoned — imprisoned by the sordid imperatives that govern his life.