Thursday, September 4, 2008

London Fields by Martin Amis

Keith didn't look like a murderer. He looked like a murderer's dog. (No disrespect to Keith's dog Clive, who had signed on well before the fact, and whom Keith didn't in the least resemble anyway.)... And murder? The eyes -- was there enough blood in them for that? Not now, not yet. He had the talent, somewhere, but he would need the murderee to bring it out. Soon, he would find the lady.

Or she would find him.

Like Prince before him, Martin Amis of the 80's was thinking about 1999. His 1989 novel London Fields opens up on London a decade in the future, paralyzed by fear of the coming apocalypse. Such dread is something that we can recognize, nineteen years later. After all, we have lived through the turn-the-calendar-and-the-world-ends hysteria of Y2K and the anxious atmosphere surrounding the late fall of 2001, when the old world seems really to have passed away. Amis has a knack for slipping details into his books--which are filled to the bursting point with details--which seem relatively inconsequential at first mention but will become vital to the plot. His doomsday is no different: Somewhere around page 200, the reader begins to wonder what all this business with the health problems of the President's wife and the vague environmental catastrophe of "dead clouds" is really doing in the narrative if Amis isn't going to explain it, and then, around page 400, boom. The world actually begins into implode.

But what Amis calls the "big thing" is essentially shoved into the background for the book's length. "The little thing," the thing which interests us, is the story of Nicola Six, a calculating sexpot who is attempting to engineer her own death by murder. Our narrator identifies the murderer as one Keith Talent, a West London lowlife cobbled together from the grotesqueries of British tabloids, a part-time cheat and full-time serial adulterer whose greatest ambition is to become a darts champion. Nicola is fascinating in her way, but she is too inhumanly precise to attract any sympathy; it is Keith who is the greatest creation of London Fields: His multicultural stable of women, his persistent obsession with the strategies of darts (there are few), his awkward cockney brutishness. The third player in Nicola's game is Guy Clinch (A Dickensian name if there ever was one), a dull and restless man whose defining characteristic is his wealth. It is Nicola's attempt, it seems, to play the two off of each other, until one--and of course, not the one we are supposed to expect--has the means and the motive to off her.

Of course, as the narrator tells us, "...a cross has four points. Not three." The fourth point is the narrator himself, British-American novelist Samson Young, who casts himself as a semi-neutral observer in the affairs of Nicola Six. Young is dying and the book he is writing about Nicola is to be his last opus, though unlike Nicola he has no choice about the matter. Whether the world has options left is still to be determined.

But the plot of London Fields could scarcely give you the impression of what it's like to read it. Amis, like other modern writers I can think of (I'm looking at you, Franzen) is a maximalist, whose circuitous phrasing hits several points and then doubles back and hits them again. But unlike his peers, Amis' style is often like traveling through someone's lower intestine: bloated, labyrinthine, and filthy. Here's an extended passage I love from chapter eleven, "The Concordance of Nicola Six's Kisses":

In the concordance of Nicola Six's kisses there were many subheads and subsections, many genres and phyla -- chapter and verse, cross- references, multiple citations. The lips were broad and malleably tremulous, the tongue was long and powerful and as sharp-pronged as a sting. That mouth was a deep source, a deep source of lies and kisses. Some of the kisses the mouth dispensed were evanescent, unrecallable, the waft or echo of a passing butterfly (or its ghost, hovering in the wrong dimension). Others were searching and detailed as a periodontal review: you came out from under them entirely plaque-free. The Rosebud, the Dry Application, Anybody's, Clash of the Incisors, Repulsion, the Turning Diesel, Mouthwash, the Tonsillectomy, Lady Macbeth, the Readied Pussy, Youth, the Needer, the Gobbler, the Deliquescent Virgin. Named like a new line of cocktails or the transient brands of Keith's perfumes: Scandal, Outrage... Named like the dolls and toys -- the rumour and voodoo -- of an only child.

Has being a slut ever been so attractive? This passage alone shows how strong Amis' style can be, from the repetition of "a deep source"--a ploy that Amis uses often but almost undetectably, as if his novel exists in that half-realm between literature and conversation--to the striking, Nabokovian bit about the butterfly's ghost. And the names--those names! Funny, yes, but so full of meaning. Can you imagine a "Lady Macbeth" kiss? If you cannot, I put to you that perhaps you have not kissed enough women (ahem, Brooke and Liz). But the reason the list really pops is number ten, "the Readied Pussy." At first, in its overt sexuality, it is jarring as a member of a list that began so subtly playful--as if we have passed from the drawing room into Nicola's bedroom. Crass it may be, but there is no denying that it evokes the sensation of a particular kiss that could never be called anything else, not only because of the singularity of its purpose, but also (if I may be so crude as to point this out) because it evokes the physical similarity between two parts of the body.

But I could talk about the way that Amis writes for Harry Potter lengths. But style alone does not a book make (or hardly at all, if you're B.R. Myers), and I cannot help but feel that London Fields ultimately cannot support the weight of Amis' world-construct. The links that we are asked to make--between those who would become the designers of their own demise--are ultimately too thin. That Keith overshadows Nicola as a point of interest is to the book's demerit, as it seems to believe that she is its focus; perhaps we have had our share of devious femmes fatale.

But worst of all is the ending, which gets the "big thing" right--Amis' cultivation of inexorable dread in the face of unknown forces rivals White Noise, in places--but the "little thing" so wrong. Amis seems to believe he has pulled an O. Henry on us, but any reasonably savvy reader will know that when we are presented with two suspects the perpetrator will ultimately turn out to be a third. He is too preoccupied with pulling off this non-twist that he fails to tell us why it is happening--or furthermore, what exactly Nicola is so damn depressed about in the first place, and why she doesn't just go commit suicide by cop like any normal person too chicken to pull the trigger. The scheme exists ultimately to be a scheme, and its coda is less The Sixth Sense than The Village.

I had little expectation that London Fields could match the blackly comedic pathos of Money, but I was hoping that Amis could deliver a plot as tightly conceived and self-contained as that one. Though he does not succeed, there are enough disturbingly beautiful moments in London Fields in which to lose yourself. Like that forementioned journey through the lower intestine, it's a strange and fascinating ride--until you get to the end.


Carlton said...

This review was too crude for me, thank you.

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