Laugh at Last?
Condition of England novels were a recognized genre in mid-nineteenth century Britain. Works such as Hard Times captured the social tensions of the country, sampling the spectrum of class, industry, education and mores. The subtitle of Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo, is tellingly, “State of England.” Amis presents the novel in the tradition of Dickens, Gaskell and Disraeli. The title character, the monstrous Lionel Asbo, appears in hyperbolic form as the state of English society and culture. His life’s history and his interaction with authority, upper classes and particularly the media propel a satiric and raucously funny attack on modern Britain. He is the monster “other” by which we know what we are and are not.
By chance, as I was reading Lionel Asbo., I found myself starting another new English novel The Facility by the author Simon Lelic. As is Lionel Asbo, the book is a satire, but in the Orwellian dystopian mode with, as a cover blurb notes, a mixture of Kafka. The monster in this story is the state, a repressive near-future regime which has through legislation, careful monitoring, and thuggish brutality, scuppered human rights and the free press. There is no lightness or humor in the work, only an ending that pulls away from the punch of final despair.
Two visions, two perspectives, and two very different experiences in reading: one drives with a comic energy into and through grotesque dissipation (Lionel wins 140 million pounds in a lottery), the other questions anxiously and paces towards answers that are never sufficient. One world ends in a bang, the other in a whimper.
In Amis’ work, the target of the satire is the loss of heritage, the overweening importance of money and the rapacious attacks of a sensationalist press. Once Lionel is made infamous by wealth, he attracts the paparazzi and the deference of his titled lawyer and agents. In the fluidity of such social evaluation, Lionel seeks the security of prison where he knows where he is and who he is. Internment then is an affirmation of the self in a system that all too often knows no boundaries.
The Facility however uses prison as the great threat to individual identity, the last stop before obliteration of the self for the “good of the state.” Arthur Priestley, a divorced dentist, is suddenly and inexplicable arrested, beaten in interrogation, and then interned. The menacing “Facility,” holds people who like Arthur have been snatched, drugged and transported to this hospital-come-prison. Their crime is infection, or supposed infection, by a virus much like HIV but more virulent and with no known treatment. The remnants of public accountability for the actions of the state (and a lapse of secrecy) insure that there are no survivors to testify to ill treatment. Warders and “patients” alike succumb.
Both works focus on the innocence of children and their threatened victimization: Lionel seeks to take vengeance on the child of his nephew Des for the incestuous relationship Des had with Lionel’s mother ; Philip’s son narrowly escapes death in an arranged accident intended to stop investigation of Philip’s disappearance. The waywardness of society directly exposes the next generation to danger; we abandon our future.
Jonathan Swift once quipped that satire is frequently most appreciated by those whom it targets (and never improves). One can enjoy Amis’s energy, invention, and impossibly clever dialogue (What language does Lionel speak?) but Lelic seems to stagger a reader with the force of his conspiracy theory. There is no simple draw to the call: are we to be done in by runaway indulgence that is guaranteed by fame and money, or are we to lose what individuality we have through abuse of government power? Amis’ book has the strength of energy and comic invention that might suggest the gallows laughter that is never quite heard in The Facility.
Standing back from both works, I have to wonder which recent novels by American authors might offer readers something like the “Condition of the United States”? Any suggestions for a reading list?