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Representing Violence in Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis: ‘Extremely Lout and Incredibly Gross’

Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès

Résumés

Il s’agira, dans cette analyse de la représentation de la violence dans le roman de Martin Amis, de mettre à jour les mécanismes par lesquels l’écriture d’Amis, parce qu’elle est excessive, oralisée, transgressive grammaticalement et syntactiquement, réussit à prélever quelque chose de l’ordre d’un réel de l’expérience violente, qu’elle nous permet d’approcher par le biais du symbolique. Le traditionnel anti-héros amisien, Lionel Asbo, joue dans ce roman éponyme le rôle de catalyseur de la violence, dans un Londres ghettoisé où l’inceste, les grossesses adolescentes et les trafics louches en tout genre sont la règle. Au-delà de la representation d’une violence sociale indéniable, c’est l’excès même de l’écriture d’Amis qui introduit de la violence dans le texte en la faisant remonter des profondeurs des bas-fonds londoniens vers la surface de l’écriture, pour la faire affleurer à même la représentation. On s’interrogera dans cette communication sur les mécanismes textuels qui se trouvent à la source des effets de sens violents produits par la représentation amisienne d’une Angleterre contemporaine où les liens sociaux et symboliques sont flottants, et sur la contribution de la rhétorique de l’excès qui caractérise le roman à son économie violente. On ne manquera pas de poser la question de la réception de cette violence de la représentation par le lecteur que le texte retient en otage pour mieux jouer avec ses attendus fictionnels.

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Entrées d’index

Mots-clés :

Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo
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Texte intégral

  • 1 Blimber Road, Carker Square and Cuttle Canal are taken from Dombey and Son; Squeers Free School, wh (...)
  • 2 Jean-Jacques Lecercle, The Violence of Language, London and New York, Routledge, 1990.

1There is a certain Dickensian feel to Amis’s portrayal of violent London in his 2012 novel entitled Lionel Asbo which bears the revealing subtitle of “The State of England”, as pointed out by Tim Martin in his review of the novel in The Telegraph dated 15th June 2012. The self-satisfied thickheadedness of the villains, their avowed eagerness not to learn, their at best contemptuous neglect and at worst sadistic attacks on the weakest (the young, the old, the women), their various contributions to the social evils which plague the capital, have a lot in common. Even the streets which Amis’s protagonists roam at night or during the day are direct borrowings from Dickens’s novels1. The type of urban decay which Lionel Asbo depicts recalls that of Bleak House or of Our Mutual Friend. Amis’s tone, however, is entirely his own, and has a distinctive flavour which stems from its combination of the energy of savage social satire with the excess of all-inclusive cutting irony and the hilarious exploitation of the remainder, which, according to Jean-Jacques Lecercle in The Violence of Language2, is the capacity of language to play with its own rules, it is “language at play” (Lecercle 39).

2In Lionel Asbo, Amis does indeed play with language, and tampers with it so as to produce an idiolect which mimics the slackening of the symbolic link which Amis associates with our postmodern condition. The result is a violently funny novel, and a comically ferocious one to boot. No wonder that the reviewers bashed it on account of the excessive viciousness (some said “bitterness”) with which it lashes out at “the state of Britain”. Admittedly, Amis’s scathing representation of the British classes that is centered on the underclass but does not exclude allusions to the middle and the upperclasses, is deliberately superlative but if so, it only partakes of a fully established tradition, which is still alive and kicking, of vehement militant satire in the vein of Gillray’s or Cruickshank’s caricatures. Lionel Asbo is both hilarious and very dark indeed, and presents us with a dystopian vision of England as seen through the lens of a mostly imaginary London.

3The plot unfolds in a district called Diston, which, even as it echoes the real London district of Dalston, near London Fields, gives it ominous overtones, as its privative prefix makes it sound dysfunctional and chaotic, which Diston is, actually, since “Town” is a concentration of social evils, with its high teenage pregnancy, incest, crime and kidnapping rates, its council tower blocks with broken lifts, its amorality, poor culture and greed, and above all its superlative violence. Urban malaise and crime define Diston, which, for all its impossible accumulation of misfits and social problems, pulsates with vitality, with “background radiation and background music” (28) conveyed to the reader as a form of symbolic excess. For “Diston, with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste”, is a “world of italics and exclamation marks”, a textual creation full of energy that aptly reactivates the Greek etymology of the word “violence”, “bia”, meaning “vital activity”, “force”, “energy”. Diston’s two most important male protagonists, Lionel Asbo and Desmond Pepperdine, are perfect embodiments of the type of modern urban dystopia which Amis loves creating, and which he ironically associates with “the state of England” in Lionel Asbo. Lionel, the Lotto Lout, with a talent for being nasty, stingy and stupid “for professional reasons”, and Des his mixed blood nephew and ward, a good-natured, clever and sensitive orphan, though located at opposite ends on Diston’s scale of crime, both actively contribute to Diston’s lawlessness and generalized economy of violence. Des opens the story on the evocation of his incestuous relations with his thirty-nine year-old gran, which, even though “round [Diston, it] isn’t considered that bad” (14), still constitutes “statutory rape” and may be punished with a “custodial sentence” (37). Lionel Asbo, for his part, is not only a criminal by surname, but a habitual offender who spends half his life in prison. Amis’s representation of the state of England is undeniably violent and transgressive, and it is equally excessive. The very excess of the text produces the type of energy which deserves critical attention, and this article is designed to uncover the clogs and wheels of the various textual mechanisms at work in Lionel Asbo which produce its pulsating idiosyncratic vision of modernity and its identity as a “condition of England novel”.

Dystopian excess and ubiquitous violence: the mechanisms of savage satire

4Readers familiar with Amis’s novels are certainly not unaccustomed to social, psychological or linguistic forms of violent excess, but in Lionel Asbo, these forms combine to produce a superlative version of Amis’s habitual themes of urban decay, anti-heroic behaviour and dystopian city. Amis’s satire of “the state of England” is savage, and it targets the vices and follies of the British underclass and upperclass alike through his representation of London. His eponymous hero is a combination of meanness and brutishness with no hope for improvement and no social aspiration. His oft repeated credo is that “with jail you’re safe, because you know where you are” (Yes, indeed, you are in jail!). Thus, Lionel spends much of his time there, even after he wins a fortune at the lottery, unable as he is to control his characteristic aggressiveness which inevitably leads him back to where he started. As Lionel makes clear when he tackles the best man’s speech at his friend Marlon’s wedding, social determinism is attached to him, because he refuses to learn:

“Then comes uh, adolescence. Shoplifting, credit cards, mug jobs, smash and grab. At school — suspension, expulsion, PRU offroll. Youth Court, Youth custody, and the odd spot of Yoi. Then came maturity. Which in my case meant prison. […] Marl was craftier, and quicker on his toes. I was more headstrong. I wouldn’t learn. For me that’s a point of principle. Never learn. So we had our careers to make. I was drawn to reset — you know, selling on — and to debt work. Marlon here was a natural thruster. B and E. Otherwise known as burgling” (77).

5Ironically enough, the epic tone in which Lionel emphasises the squalor of his condition and character only serves to portray him in an even darker light. It helps the reader understand that Lionel’s very name, ASBO, only designates the tip of the iceberg of his anti-social violence and obnoxious behaviour. He feeds beer and Tabasco to his own pitbulls, the “tools of his trade” (7), to keep them “tasty” and “to make them attack humans — at [his] own bidding” (15). He “resets” or “sells” schoolboys whom he believes to have come too close to his promiscuous mother, as Des’s friend, Rory Nightingale, learns the hard way, whose lip ring is the only remaining part of his body to be found after Lionel has “fixed him up with a uh – with a circle of new friends […]” (54). Lionel’s version of “having fun” is equally significant, since it consists either in kicking a few NEETS (Not in Employment, Education or Training) or a few NEDs (Non-Educated Delinquents) to cheer himself up for the day: “nothing serious, give them a tap or two. And then sling them in the canal. Tonight I’ll go looking for that fat cunt we seen in Jupes. Maybe that’ll put me in the mood” (205). And when Lionel’s nephew asks him what mood this puts him in, his answer betrays a problematic sexuality on top of everything else:

“The mood to do a tart. Here, Up in me room.” […] “See, Des, with me sexuality being what it is – there has to be pain…This is it. Don’t know why. But there has to be pain’[…] ‘So the Gina relationship’s obviously ideal. For now. You know, I’m doing her in the normal way. And with every thrust,’ [] ‘I’m causing pain…” (206).

6The person Lionel is causing pain to, besides Gina, is Gina’s husband, Marlon, whom Lionel forces to look on as his wife is being “done”. A very problematic treatment for which Marlon will take his revenge not on Lionel himself, but on his own wife, whose face suffers irreversible damage as a result:

“There’s been a development. Gina. Yeah, mate, she’s been done. Acid. Jupes Lanes […] Broad daylight. Seen what it does — acid? ’Des tried to feel skeptical (how true was this?). But for twenty years he had been a fully conscious resident of Diston Town, where calamity made its rounds like a postman. Gina, he thought — with that smile, those eyes. He took a mouthful of cold coffee and let it drip back into the cup through his teeth.” (251).

  • 3 As translated by Ted Hughes in 1995:
    “Each thing hostile
    To every other thing: at every point
    Hot foug (...)

7An excess of violence characterises Amis’s representation of Diston which is peopled with a gallery of social misfits and freaks unable to control themselves or keep tab on their lowest impulses. Beyond that, it is the very excess of excess that strikes the reader as violent, when excess becomes gratuitous in significant tell-tale details, as is the case with the depiction of Lionel’s disgusting table manners. Amis’s meticulous and multisensorial evocation of Town provides an adequate spatial anchorage for his evocation of generalized lawlessness, absence of rules, manners, and social chaos, since Diston is presented as a breeding ground for crime and brutality, which helps the reader visualize and auralise the protagonists’ violent whereabouts. Indeed, a true vision of the “loose, the floating world of Diston Town” (137) can only be conjured up through the narrator’s quotation from the “poetry of chaos” which Ovid uses in his Metamorphosis (1:17-20)3:

“Everything hated everything else, and everything else, in return, hated everything back. Everything soft hated everything hard, and vice versa, cold fought heat, heat fought cold, everything honked and yelled and swore at everything, and all was weightless and all hated weight” (165).

8Diston conjures up a Hobbesian vision of a society where man is at war with man and life is “short, nasty and brutish”: “On an international chart for life expectancy, Diston would appear between Benin and Djibouti (fifty-four for men and fifty-seven for women)” (9). On the other hand, Diston possesses a rocket-high rate of teenage pregnancies which prevents it from thinning out (Lionel’s mother has her first baby when she turns 12, and Lionel has 6 brothers and sister). Not only does Diston have the demographics of a third world country but it is also plagued with crime and urban violence, which prompts Lionel to advise his nephew Des on various survival strategies: “When you creep off at night, you carry a blade?’ ‘Uncle Li! You know me.’ ‘Well, you should. For you own security. And you peace of mind. You going to get youself striped. Or worse. There’s no fistfights any more, not in Diston. There’s only knife fights. To the death. Or guns.’” (9)

9Contrary to Lionel who is well-armed against the superlative violence of the modern British city, because he thrives on violence and is himself one of its main sources, his nephew is a sweet-tempered boy with little inclination for mayhem, whose wise statements offer ironic counterpoints to his uncle’s expostulations. What makes Des so ill-suited to life in Diston is precisely his refusal to take violence as a granted norm like his uncle, and like most of Diston’s inhabitants:

“Des was fleet of foot, but he was otherwise unsuited to life in Diston Town. Second or even first nature to Lionel (who was pronounced ‘uncontrollable’ at the age of eighteen months), violence was alien to Des, who always felt that violence - extreme and ubiquitous though it certainly seemed to be – came from another dimension” (21).

10Des’s position of sound common sense, with which the reader is most of the time led to identify, makes Lionel’s brutishness look even more overblown. Thus Des’s quiet desire for knowledge and social improvement strongly contrasts with Lionel’s very personal definition of a healthy life and smooth socialising:

‘What you doing there with that pen? What’s that you writing? Guiss it.’ Des thought fast. ‘Uh, it’s about poetry, Uncle Li.’
Poetry?’ said Lionel and started back.
‘Yeah. Poem called The Faerie Queene”.’
‘The what?...I despair of you sometimes, Des. Why aren’t you out smashing windows? It’s not healthy” (6-7)

11However, the reader is never made to lose sight of the fact that living in Diston implies infringement on the law in one way or another. The text’s ironic twist in its portrayal of Des in the quotation above is that the latter is not writing poetry at all, but a letter to the Diston Gazette’s Agony Aunt to disburden his heavy heart of its fearful secret:

“Dear Jennaveive, I’m having an affair with an older woman. Shes’ a lady of some sophistication, and makes a refreshing change from the teen agers I know (like Alektra fir example, or Chanel.) The sex is fantastic and I think I’m in love. But ther’es one very serious complication and I’ts this: shes’ my Gran!” (3)

12Amis’s satirical representation of Diston as accumulating all social evils and of its poorly educated inhabitants as barely commanding the spelling of the English language finds a telling illustration in this report made by Des of the affair he’s having with his grand-mother in the agony columns of the Diston Gazette. His displacement of letters and apostrophes linguistically represent Des’s transgressive behaviour as regards social norms; they immediately associate social transgression with a weakening of the symbolic order. However, the reader is invited to understand that there is an ironic twist to this association between linguistic transgression and the violation of a fundamental social taboo since Des appears from the start as the character Amis has chosen to redeem the features of Diston town, and of the “state of England” beyond that. From a dramatic viewpoint, Des’s “complication” not only serves to show that social barriers and taboos are resolutely violated and transgressed in the book, but it also fuels the suspense in the plot, since it allows for a sense of exponential menace to hover over the relations between Uncle and Nephew, so that the reader rightly assumes that Lionel will seek violent revenge over the trespasser, as Des himself fearfully anticipates:

“Apart from the legal question which is worrying me sick, theres another huge problem. Her son, Lionel, is my uncle, and hes’ like a father to me when he’s not in prison. See hes an extremely violent criminal and if he find’s out I’m giving his Mum one, hell fucking kill me. Literally!
It might be argued that his was a grave underestimation of Lionel’s view on trespass and reprisal” (5)

13True to the character he is impersonating, Lionel will indeed strike back with a vengeance, once Des has become the happy father of a baby girl, in a way that involves the baby, Lionel’s pitbull dogs and a rubbish tank, which miraculously closes its jaws on the baby’s body to shield it from the dogs’ attack.

14The obvious piling up of excess upon excess in Amis’s description of “the state of England”, as the novel’s subtitle indicates, constitutes the material of his savage satire. Lionel himself ironically identifies with his motherland in his jingoistic expostulations:

“I’ll never set foot outside my motherland. Well, Scotland and that. You know, maybe Wales. But I’m not going over that water, mate. I love this f…ing country. It’s England, my England, for Lionel Asbo. England. England. England” (175).

15The hyperbolic and ironical repetition of “England” cannot fail to conjure up a network of intertextual echoes, ranging from the patriotic poem “Pro rege nostro” celebrating the might and power of England at the time of the Empire in England, my England by William Ernest Henley (1888) to the short story by D.H. Lawrence entitled England, my England published in 1922, to Julian Barnes’ novel England, England (1998). However, the very excessive nature of the satirical representation of “philoprogenitive Diston” (217) and its asocial central character invites us to reconsider it as a satire of satires. Social satire is indeed the occasion for Amis to self-reflexively mull over the relations between language and violence. His use of hyperboles, superlatives and all kinds of exaggerations suggests that simple words may be too weak and ineffectual to capture the full extent of the dystopian England Amis intends to sketch. The very grotesque nature of his subject matter, his creation of a city which concentrates all social evils and his invention of a main protagonist without one single redeeming feature question the representational process, so that the very excess of excess in the novel bespeaks the presence of a central void, a failure of language to truly address the subject it seeks to represent, a weakening of the symbolic link which Amis’s idiosyncratically violent picture of “the state of England” aims to uncover. Conspicuously enough, in Lionel Asbo, the traditional symbolic figures of guarantee and authority are non-existent, or they are notably ineffective. Fathers are either absent, or drunk, or dead, and Lionel’s parental care for Desmond is described as, at best, that of an “anti-dad, [a] counterfather” (56). And on the only occasion when a policeman is to be seen in the text, he does nothing for crime deterrence and helplessly witnesses Lionel fiercely attacking a press photographer. Not only are the traditional figures of symbolic guarantee absent or turned into ridicule in the novel, but symbolic representation is generally on the wane, and held responsible for the ubiquitous nature of violence which Amis associates with our contemporary plight. If Diston is what it is, and Lionel the kind of character we love to hate, this is due to a slackening of the symbolic bond. Nowhere is this weakening of the symbolic order more conspicuous than when Amis exerts violence on the rules of standard English language to create a specific idiolect able to convey the negative energy of Lionel’s singular engagement with modern life in the great city.

Amis’s violent exploitation of the work of the remainder4

  • 4 Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, The Violence of Language, London and New York: Routledge, 1990, p. 5.

16In The Violence of Language, Jean-Jacques Lecercle analyses the work of the remainder as characterising texts where “language is no longer a mere instrument, it seems to have acquired a life of its own. Language speaks, it follows its own rhythm, its own partial coherence, it proliferates in apparent, and sometimes violent, chaos” (Lecercle 5). Lionel Asbo’s excessive characterization is a product of Amis’s exploitation of the work of the remainder: it comes through to us by means of a proliferation of privative linguistic forms, such as negations, ellipses and antitheses, which shape an image in negative of the great asocial. Amis’s hollowed-out punctuation, with its accumulation of dots, hyphens and unfinished sentences, combines with his deliberate choice of ambiguity over clarity, to suggest that regular language cannot describe Lionel’s loutish behaviour. The protagonist’s constant repetitions of the same words and phrases inflict a severe stammer on the text and contribute to creating Lionel’s unique voice. Finally, the presence of words, sentences and even whole paragraphs in italics when Lionel speaks or when the consequences of his acts need to be stressed suggests that standard typography is not sufficient to adequately picture the troublesome personality and distinctive “brogue” (146) of the main protagonist.

17Lionel as a character is indeed presented to us first and foremost as a specific idiolect which fleshes out and muscles up his otherwise monolithic personality, and which is characterised by absolute disregard for any kind of linguistic rule or order. Lionel’s very distinctive parlance with its “froth of fricatives” (91) typically blurs the boundaries between the spoken and the written word, as demonstrated by the letter he sends to his nephew while in prison:

“DES BE AT NORF GATE ON SATDEE JULY 11 TWELVEFIRTY BRING ME DRIVE-IN LICENSE ME BRIF STATIFICAT ME BLAK SELL FONE AND ME CUMPEWUH [the last four words were crossed out] AND THE DOGS PEDDYGREES BE THERE SO NO MINNIE CABIN FOR YOU THAT SATDEE TELL SIMFEA ALLRIGHT LIONEL” (86)

18Amis’s invention of a specific idiolect for Lionel revivifies the written word with the energy of oral vitality. Thus, Lionel is murder onto the norms of English pronunciation and spelling, and his distinctive idiom disfigures words on the page:

“‘Dogs,’ said Lionel, ‘they descended from wolves. That’s they heritage. Now wolves,’ he went on, ‘they not man’s natural enemy; Oh no. You wolf won’t attack a human. That’s a myth, that is, Des. A total myth.’
Des listened. Lionel pronounced ‘myth’ miff. Full possessive pronouns — your, their, my — still made guest appearances in his English, and he didn’t invariably defy grammatical number (they was, and so on). Until a couple of years ago Lionel pronounced ‘Lionel’ Loyonel, or even Loyonoo.” (15)

19Lionel’s violent engagement with the symbolic ignores national boundaries, and vigorously mixes different languages, thus playfully displacing the borders constituting national identities, which enlarges Amis’s evocation of the state of England:

“Every couple of weeks Lionel got the dogs pissed on Special Brews. Interesting, that, thought Des. In America, evidently, pissed meant angered, or pissed off; in England, pissed just meant drunk. After six cans each of potent malt lager, Jeff and Joe [Lionel’s pitbulls] were pissed in both senses. Course, they useless when they actually pissed, said Lionel. They come on tough but they can’t hardly walk. It’s the next morning — ooh. That’s when they tasty…That ooh sounded more like . Nor was this the only example of Lionel’s inadvertent French. He also used un — as a modest expletive, denoting frustration, effort, or even mild physical pain.” (16)

20Lionel’s repeated attacks on syntactic and grammatical order push meaning to the edge, and seem to defy the reader’s understanding at first reading, as when the Lotto Lout invites his nephew to come and admire his latest BMWs, a moment when his transgression of syntactic rules is turned into a source of pure comedy: “show you me cars” (165). Similarly, when Lionel enquires about the mental state of his mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, he remarkably flaunts grammatical rules, in a way that reflects his own positioning vis-à-vis generally admitted linguistic rules and order: “When you go up there. […] Does she know you you?” (188).

21Lionel’s repeated acts of violence against commonly accepted grammatical and syntactic rules suggest a superlative form of transgression of the symbolic order, that which creeps in when the forms of language no longer relate to the meanings which have conventionally been attached to them. This weakening of the form-meaning pairing under Lionel’s influence is used by Amis as a symptom to convey the state of our postmodern condition in his novel, and is ironically dubbed “the state of England”. It involves desemanticisation and the gratuitous play of apparently meaningless signifiers:

“It was on the last Saturday of Dawn’s fifth month that Lionel paid his first visit. ‘He said he might look in sometime. That’s all. You know Uncle Li. Predictably unpredictable. Always was.’ ‘…That’s a useless bloody phrase, that is. Predictably unpredictable. I mean, how far’s it get you? Where’s the predictable bit come in? Lionel’s not predictably unpredictable. He’s unpredictably unpredictable. ‘Yeah. He’s just unpredictable.’ Predictable and its opposite were becoming similarly meaningless in the half-dark of the kitchen” (184).

22However, what makes Lionel Asbo such a funny and possibly questionable novel at the same time, is that the very excess of Lionel’s idiolect threatens to proliferate out of both writer’s and reader’s control and to contaminate the whole text with its free-wheeling centrifugal puns and double-entendres.

  • 5 Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, op.cit., p. 5.
  • 6 Ibid.

23Amis’s novel convincingly demonstrates that violence in our contemporary world is to be associated with a weakening of the symbolic order, which on the one hand produces violence, but on the other allows meaning to proliferate freely and to create hilarious effects of puns and double entendres. In Lionel Asbo language is not only an instrument in the writer’s hands to back up his demonstration about the state of England, but it becomes violent as it seems to “acquire[d] a life of its own”5 and to escape both writer’s and reader’s control, as it “proliferates in violent chaos”6 in order to speak to us, instead of being spoken. This violence of language may be used to produce deliberate double-entendres, as when Des is reported to imagine that the Agony Aunt in The Morning Lark answers his letter with one of her “lewd puns”: “at least you’re having a Gran old time!” (5). But more often than not, meaning escapes both the speaker’s and the reader’s control, leading to the type of semantic chaos and misunderstanding which is foregrounded in the scene where Lionel mistakes Des’s desire for paternity with something else, showing that linguistic ambiguity opens the door to interpretive delirium:

“I fancy a girl.’
Oh yeah, Who?
Was Lionel being sarcastic — or just stupid on purpose? ‘No. I fancy having a girl.’
‘Yeah? Who?’
‘No, Uncle Li. I fancy fathering a girl.’
‘Oh. Oh. Well that’s you own business” (155)

24Even as it becomes unreadable for Lionel (and the reader!), language reactivates signification by remotivating its own symbolic bonds, making the figurative mean literally and reciprocally. Thus, as Desmond wonders why his uncle actually changed his name from Pepperdine to Asbo, which singled him out as an offender, the answer comes to him in the form of an unintended pun which reactivates the literal meaning of a catachresis:

“Isn’t it a bit bloody daft to change your name, by deed poll, on your eighteenth birthday, from Lionel Pepperdine to Lionel Asbo? All his uncle would say was that Pepperdine’s a crap name anyhow. And Asbo has a nice ring to it. This was literally the case: Lionel would flaunt his electronic loop (it looked like an ankle strap with a battery attached), even as he took the stand at the Old Bailey” (27).

25The state of England which Amis cuttingly represents in his novel is thus often identified with the state of English as a language, which leaves the reader under the impression that English lives a life of its own in Lionel Asbo, based on the random actualisation of different equally possible literal or figurative forms of meaning, as is the case with the title of the 3rd part in the 1st chapter in the novel, which presents us with Des’s baby and reads: “2012: Cilla Dawn Pepperdine, Babe in Arms”, which invites us to understand its last word in all possible senses of the term, given the context of social violence that permeates the novel. The text is peppered with equally unintended and intended puns and double-entendres, as when Des tries to brush aside Lionel’s suspicion that the boy is having an affair with his mum: “I’m in and out all the time. And I never see anything” (32). The very flexibility of the English language provides the perfect ground for the type of violent linguistic proliferation that can be found in Amis’s novel, as when Des inquires about his grand-mother’s health with one of the doctors in the residence where she has been placed:

“Sorry? A few more good years?
Uh, no. A good few more years. Is what I said.” (130)

26Amis’s literary work exploits the violence of language, or the works of the “remainder”, to conjure up his individual vision of what he calls “the state of England”. But beyond that, the reader often gets the sense that it is the remainder itself, namely the violent capacity of language to play with its own rules, that exploits Amis’s depiction of England, when its vagaries seem to be given free rein. There is no randomness to those whimsy linguistic displacements, however, since the violence of contingent meaning contributes to the violent economy of the novel, which, like Lionel himself: “has definitely found a style” (76). Like Diston town and its various breeds of attack dogs, Amis surfs on the wave of violent linguistics which he exploits (and there, as in many other fields, you win some, and you lose some), in a Sisyphean attempt to resemanticise our contemporary world where the symbolic link has slackened. Like Lionel’s dogs, with their own idiosyncratic lingo, Amis seems to have found a way of violently revivifying the state of language:

“The dogs: their sloppy faces, their tongues hanging from the corner of their jaws like something half-eaten, their blind eyes and staring nostrils, their forelimbs planted stupidly apart. They thickly barked. And they weren’t barking out — they were barking in. Fuckoff, said Joe. Fuckoff, said Jeff” (55).

27Amis’s savage and funny exploitation of the work of the remainder in his satire of the state of England in Lionel Asbo relies on a very biting type of irony indeed, which stems directly from the inherent capacity of language to proliferate creatively.

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Notes

1 Blimber Road, Carker Square and Cuttle Canal are taken from Dombey and Son; Squeers Free School, which the eponymous hero’s nephew attends, is drawn from Nicholas Nickleby; Jupes Lanes from Hard Times; Doyce Grove from Little Dorrit and the ominous Murdstone Road from David Copperfield.

2 Jean-Jacques Lecercle, The Violence of Language, London and New York, Routledge, 1990.

3 As translated by Ted Hughes in 1995:
“Each thing hostile
To every other thing: at every point
Hot fought cold, moist dry, soft hard, and the weightless
Resisted weight.”

4 Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, The Violence of Language, London and New York: Routledge, 1990, p. 5.

5 Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, op.cit., p. 5.

6 Ibid.

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Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès, « Representing Violence in Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis: ‘Extremely Lout and Incredibly Gross’ », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 22 | 2017, mis en ligne le 30 mars 2017, consulté le 24 juillet 2017. URL : http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/4965

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Auteur

Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès

University of Maine (Le Mans)

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Sillages critiques est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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