My rating: 4 of 5 stars
London Fields (1989) by Martin Amis is an absurd book of 470 pages; let me rephrase that: an absurdity with an incredibly high IQ.
Set mainly in London Fields (a park/district in the city of London), the players involved include: Sam Young (an American writer), Nicola Six (murderee/sexpot), Keith Talent (darts expert/con-artist), and Guy Clinch (a wealthy romantic). The plot: who is going to murder Nicola Six?
While in London, Sam stays at a more talented and famous writer’s house, that of Mark Asprey, who also has a pen name of Marius Appleby (and the same initials as Martin Amis). M.A. never appears in the novel.
In the same vein as John Fowles‘s The French Lieutenant Woman (1969) and Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1955), Sam addresses the reader directly and becomes the central voice of the novel that dives deep inside the pornographic conspiracy of Nicola’s plot to manipulate either Keith or Guy in killing her. She simply cannot go on with life.
The time is placed in 1999 and the unraveling events of Keith’s humiliation in front of Kim Twemlow (previous world champion of darts) and Guy’s failed marriage leads up to the end of the millennium and the looming threat of the world ending on the day of an eclipse. The world does not end, but Nicola does die.
As Nicola assists Keith (married with a small child) in his attempt to gain celebrity status as a world ranking darts-man, she seduces Guy (married with a small child). Amis, in his Note at the beginning of the book, considered calling the book The Death of Love, and there is an overall sense of how the moral degradation among the four key characters align to the environmental and societal degradation presented constantly throughout.
Everyone appears to sleep with everyone else. Nicola enchants the three men in doing her bidding by being what each of them want her to be. Keith wants her to be a Whore. Guy wants her to be a Virgin. And Sam, well, Sam just wants her to inspire him to write the novel that is the true events of her story and how she desires to be killed. A surprise ending, as Sam writes, is waiting, and the novel that is often considered as a ”dark comic” does not disappoint.
One thing that is intelligent about London Fields is its incredible vocabulary. Dark books are at times well-articulated. Cormac McCarthy and his books (such as Blood Meridian and Suttree) are brought to mind. Dostoevski also. The reason: the darker and the more debased content in the fiction, the higher the rhetoric and the vocabulary. Most readers fail to understand this device, but it is a practical tool to balance the unfavorable with a high style.
Some highlights now:
Amis is a master at pin-pointing a character’s essence and placing it in context to the overall plot with such well designed sentences, like the one below:
”Raising a yellow finger to his lower lip, Keith pondered the whole future of cheating. Cheating was his life. Cheating was all he knew. Few people had that much money any more but it was quite clear that they had never been stupider. The old desire for a bargain had survived into a world where there weren’t any; there weren’t any bargains. Unquestionably you could still earn a decent living at it, at cheating. Yet no one seemed to have thought through the implications of a world in which everyone cheated” (p 113).
Other times the writing becomes a bit bathetic and too extraordinary to believe, no matter the techniques the writer tries to pull off. It just comes off wrong. But there is a reason for these comic side-shots, much like the reason for the high vocabulary. Out of the entire novel, however, only a few places stand out as affectively silly, and that is remarkable for the kind of novel Amis wrote.
”Guy walked on, down Elgin Avenue. He felt happy–in obedience, perhaps to the weather (and if this sun were tendered in a children’s book it would surely be smiling); happy anticipations, happy memories, an embarrassment of happiness” (p 148).
”This was horrorday, however. Therefore, a horrorbike was waiting there, leaning on its stick, and Keith heard the eager horrorcrunch. Worse, Keith crept out to disensnare his bumper, the horrorbike’s own horrorbiker formidably appeared–one of that breed of men, giant miracles of facial hair and weight problem, who love the wind of the open road, and love the horrorbikes they stradle there. He hoisted Keith on to the boot of the Cavalier, and banged his head on it for a while, and then direly raised a gauntleted horrorfist” (p 439).
Regardless of its weak points, London Fields does shine more than it flagged.
”[Keith] tried to make it beautiful, and it came out ugly; and the birds looked mad. And mad in the wrong way. So when Nicola Six, alluringly reduced to two dimensions, had climbed out of the deep green dress and had gazed, in bra-and-panty set, so pensively out of the window, Keith had felt a tinge up his spine and a prickle of the hairs on the back of his neck. Had felt, in fact, that sense of pregnant arrest which accompanies the firm handclasp of art” (p 289).
After Nicola has been killed off (no tear shed here; but should there have been? I’m not at all sure), Amis’s writing reaches its true potential and becomes unleashed and true, heart to heart kind of truth. Side-remark: The feelings I had when I read the ending of this novel reminded me of Dickens and the end of A Tale of Two Cities. Amis writes:
”Two years ago I saw something that nobody should ever see: I saw my little brother dead. I know from the look on his face that nothing can survive the death of the body. Nothing can survive a devastation so thorough. Children survive their parents. Works of art survive their makers. I failed, in art and love. Nevertheless, I ask you to survive me” (p 469).
But is truth wanted in art anymore? Amis, writing as Mark Asprey in a letter to Sam, has an answer to this question:
”It doesn’t matter what anyone writes any more. The time for it mattering has passed. The truth doesn’t matter any more and is not wanted” (p 452).
Call me a cynic, but I happen to agree. Not because I want this statement to be true, but because it is true. One sad fact among the multitude.
Another fact: London Fields is a powerful book. Dazzling in its prose. Mind-blowing in its characterizations. Not quiet a work of art, but nevertheless an act of art. A strong recommend. Enjoy.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers