Desmond Pepperdine has a secret — one that’s revealed on the first page of Martin Amis’s new novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England. The secret itself is pretty unthinkable, but it precipitates a crime so unthinkable that, once it’s happened, Desmond can’t think about it: “it would be very difficult to include the recent event into the world of things that existed. He kept trying; but he couldn’t fit it in.”
Secrets, atrocities, dramatic irony by the yard: Martin Amis’s work is full of ellipses. Some of them are eventually filled in; most aren’t. The beginning of virtually every chapter is an exercise in re-orientation — What did I miss? — until he provides the clarifying line. Or doesn’t.
Fair warning: I read Success at age eighteen, on a tiny, drizzly Brazilian island. Amis has been too steady a presence in my life for me to judge his books individually, or even fairly. But I thought the US publication of Lionel Asbo (August 21) might be a good opportunity to look at the Amis ellipsis in its many forms. Here goes...
A group of friends retreat to a country house. Youth, an idyllic setting, and lots of fucking and drugs. Then it takes on a slasher film quality (or just picks up where Monty Python left off) as an uninvited guest named “Johnny” starts leaving creepy notes and, you know, killing people. There’s a mounting sense that the killer is one of the friends, but they all seem too wasted or pathetic or suave. So who is Johnny? The answer, echoed in many of Amis’s later books, has a lot to do with class and the distorting sheen of beauty.
Money flows obscenely through this one. (So do drugs, junk food, and ugly sex.) But where’s it coming from? John Self, a filmmaker at the outset of a huge new project and the receptacle of those obscene portions, has no idea. The book itself is so overstuffed that the big reveal at the end seems more like an afterthought. But I still felt a twinge of empathy for Mr. Self. And it was worth it just to meet, in passing, “two Southern actors named Sod MacGonagall and Fart Klaeber.”
The jacket copy drops the bomb here; it also tells you that time will run backward throughout the book, making it the most prolonged commitment to dramatic irony I know of. At the moment of the protagonist’s death from old age, time reverses, and a new consciousness awakens in his head. This voice has no idea what its host did half a century ago, or what to make of visions like “the bloodstained rubber bib, hanging on its hook.” But we do, and it’s much more disturbing to be carried along into the past, knowing what has happened, what will happen.
This one’s an actual mystery, a novella-length genre tangent. It’s also one of my favorites. At the risk of self-plagiarism (no one cares about that, right?), here’s a line that I already quoted once on this blog: “It appears that Jennifer Rockwell shot herself in the head three times.” The twist, if you can call it that, is both completely unexpected and deus-ex-machina-free (kind of like Dead Babies). And it creeped me out for a long time.
I doubt many authors use mystery motifs in their own memoirs. And yet a photo of Amis holding an infant comes with this caption: “For structural reasons the baby I am wielding cannot be named.” Parentage looms large here, as it does in Lionel Asbo. Blurring its lines is something he can’t seem to resist (and not just with the wielded baby), but in the new book he suggests that that same ambiguity can have consequences that are, well, unthinkable.
What I’ve never figured out is, why create confusion? What good is a mystery without Angela Lansbury dispensing answers and bons mots? Maybe there’s a hint toward the end of Lionel Asbo, as Desmond tries vainly to force what he's seen into his sense of reality, to process…
this riven feeling, with its equal parts panic and rapture … The thing was that he considered it a perfectly logical response to being alive.
Solve one mystery, reveal another one — this one murkier, deeper. The floor keeps opening out underfoot, the metaphors keep slugging away at each other, the periods are muddy footprints stretching to the horizon…and that’s just how it is. What never fails to surprise me, in Martin Amis's books, is how weirdly sustaining those ellipses can be.