London Fields

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2548

Martin Amis has rapidly become one of the leading satirists among contemporary novelists. In The Rachel Papers (1973), Dead Babies (1975), Success (1978), Other People: A Mystery Story (1981), and Money: A Suicide Note (1984), Amis lampoons the excesses of modern Fngland. He writes about the banality, brutality, and loneliness of urban life, about shallow people bored with all aspects of their extstence, including sex. His characters are neurotic and insecure, often question their own sanity, and are unable to communicate with one another. The son of conservative satirist Kingsley Amis, he finds humor in a violent world from a liberal perspective but is far from being didactic, often mocking his characters’ moral and political pretensions. London Fields is the major work toward which Amis has been building, one that effectively explores all of his themes.

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Set sometime in the near future, London Fields is a darkly comic interpretation of the ennui and decadence of Western civilization. Through examining the lives of four protagonists from different strata of society, Amis depicts the boredom, triviality, and violence of contemporary Fngland. Samson Young, a young but dying American writer visiting London, is writing his first novel. Nicola Six, a mysterious, highly erotic, intelligent, but disturbed woman, wants to be murdered. Because Sam lacks the imagination necessary to create fiction, he relies on observing his friends and incorporating them into his novel. Nicola cooperates, keeping him informed of what transpires between her and Keith Talent, the small-time hoodlum she has selected to be her murderer, and Guy Clinch, the wealthy innocent she lures into her web of duplicity.

Nicola chooses Keith to be the catalyst in her death because he seems to have been born for the part. Keith, twenty-nine, considers himself a racketeer preying on the helpless, but he devotes too little time and effort to be a successful crook. Keith resorts to crime less from need than from an antisocial temperament. Though Amis sympathizes with the disadvantaged, he hardly sentimentalizes them; Keith represents the malaise and insensitivity of the working class. Keith marries Kath because she teaches him to read and write; he gets her pregnant and gives her a venereal disease; then he ignores her, not even allowing her to ride in his car. He names their infant daughter Kim after his hero, Fngland’s leading darts player, but neglects her as well. Kath, a victim, victimizes Kim in revenge for her husband’s sins.

Sexually insatiable, Keith commits adultery numerous times each day with his stable of lovers, none of whom he regards as remotely human. He cares only for darts (more a national obsession for the working class than a pub game) and for the glamorous world of television. Keith’s dream is to merge the two by playing darts on television. Keith is romantic about darts in a way he is incapable of being romantic about women, even the ostensible dream lover, Nicola. He retreats into darts because he can understand the game; perhaps it is the only thing he can comprehend. His only regret about darts is that he cannot cheat at it, as he does in every other aspect of life.

Keith is too stupid to understand why Nicola befriends him after wandering into the Black Cross, his home pub. He thinks she is attracted by his darts potential: “A guy like Keith—and she must have sensed this—there was nothing he couldn’t do, there was nothing beyond him.” The ironically named Keith Talent, however, vastly overrates himself He is below average as a criminal and only slightly better at darts. As soon as she sees him, Nicola recognizes the inability to love, though he later decides that “he loved her as he would his own manager, in the big time.” Keith is finally a pathetic, almost sympathetic figure because he recognizes his need for an identity: “He wanted her for her belief in him, because she was the other world, and if she said that Keith was real then the other world would say it too.”

Though at the other social, educational, and economic extreme, Guy Clinch is as much a cipher as is Keith. Guy longs for love, any kind of love, but can elicit none from Hope, his unfaithful wife of fifteen years; Lizzyboo, her voluptuous sister; or Marmaduke, his tempestuous infant son. His inherited wealth, about which he feels guilt, and good looks offer no solace. His restlessness leads him into the Black Cross, an unlikely friendship with Keith, and an awareness of the world beyond his privileged environment: “Guy always thought it was life he was looking for. But it must have been death—or death awareness. Death candour….It is mean, it is serious, it is beautiful, it is poor.” Because Keith is poor, Guy “honoured him and pitied him and admired him and envied him (and, he sometimes thought, even vaguely fancied him).”

Guy thinks he finds what will fill the emptiness of his life when he encounters Nicola, falling in love with her at first sight. She immediately perceives him to be “an insufficiently examined self, or an insufficiently critical one.” Guy is a good person who tries to be what others want him to be. He is obedient, industrious, and uncomplaining; he is faithful to Hope until Nicola comes along; he loves Marmaduke even though his son is an unlovable brat with an Oedipus complex; he even imagines “natural delicacy” on the part of the crude Keith. Guy is so na’ive that he believes Nicola is a thirty-four-year-old virgin. Amis offers him as indicative of the potential for good in his class, but Guy is too shallow to act on his good intentions.

Most of the events in London Fields result from or are influenced by Nicola’s machinations. She wants Keith—or someone—to kill her simply because she is bored with life and cannot imagine how it could ever be any different. Because of her enormous vanity, she must end her life by intricately planning her demise, choosing her birthday—also the date of the finals for Keith’s national darts competition—as her “appointed deathnight.” She keeps intimate diaries about her myriad sexual adventures and throws them away seemingly so that Sam will find them and become her coconspirator.

As a child, Nicola has an imaginary friend named Fnola Gay who gives birth to a son called Little Boy. She tells Guy that Fnola Gay and Little Boy are refugees in Southeast Asia, then gets money from him to find them and gives it to Keith. Nearing the end of her manipulations, she gives Guy a book about Hiroshima which shocks him into confusion. The atomic bomb is a metaphor both for Nicola’s death wish and for her society’s potential for self-destruction. She selects Guy for her plot because she sees him as the opposite of Keith, as containing “a strong potentiality of love, which she needed, because the equation she was working on unquestionably needed love in it somewhere.” She also wants a second potential killer in case Keith fails her. Having had seven abortions, she delights in convincing Guy she is totally innocent about love. She goes to the other extreme with Keith, making pornographic videotapes of herself both to provoke and to weaken him. A self-professed male fantasy figure, Nicola becomes less and less real as her scheme unfolds.

Samson Young, like Guy and Keith, is sexually excited by her but lacks their illusions. Sam has only occasional qualms about the moral implications of his involvement with Nicola and even fewer illusions about his art: “I am less a novelist than a queasy cleric, taking down the minutes of real life.” He is a successful observer because the other protagonists trust him: “I’m like a vampire. I can’t enter unless I’m asked in over the threshold. Once there, though, I stick around.” Dying of some vague ailment, cynical, dissatisfied with his affair with Lizzyboo, Sam needs life and innocence, so he falls in love with Kim, the only character in London Fields capable of being saved. He baby-sits for her and tries to provide the affection her parents will not. Comforting the child provides the insecure Sam with his only pleasure.

London Fields is an indictment of a society that values goods and services above all else, prefers sex to love and sometimes even pornography to sex. Amis’ London is a gloomy landscape plagued by theft, vandalism, and general tawdriness. Fngland is in rapid decline; America is slowly going insane; politics poses more problems than solutions; the world economy is uncontrollable; God is dead; and love is seriously ill. Amis presents his characters against a background of potential international crisis as tensions among the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Arab countries, together with assorted natural disasters, threaten to destroy the planet. Even physics itself is said to have died. More important is humanity’s dwindling ability to love: “Love made the world go round. And the world was slowing up. The world wasn’t going round.” Love is disappearing because no one cares to preserve it. Western civilization at the end of the twentieth century is a place where “nobody is to blame for anything, and nothing matters, and everything is allowed.”

The tone of London Fields is less one of anger than of disappointment. Amis is upset by society’s flaws while also amused by them. Like conservative satirists such as his father, Kingsley Amis, and Fvelyn Waugh, Martin Amis ridicules the deficiencies of his culture but does not expect them to change. One of the most frequent targets of his ire is the effect of television on the Keith Talents of a postliterate world that will never recover from television’s influence. While Keith reads darts magazines and a tabloid newspaper, he spends most of his time away from pub and bed in front of his television set, even though the medium makes him feel like an outsider:

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“Television was all about everything he did not have and was full of all the people he did not know and could never be.” It distorts his sense of the real world because television represents “an exemplary reality, all beautifully and gracefully interconnected, where nothing hurt much and nobody got old. It was a high trapeze, the artists all sequin and tutu… enacted far above the sawdust, the peanut shells and poodle droppings, up there, beyond a taut and twanging safety-net called money. More even than money, Keith covets the status television confers on its celebrities. He strives to reach the darts final not so much out of his love for the sport as because it will be televised on his favorite program: “TV, he thought. It was the best he could do.” Knowing Keith as she does, Nicola picks the best possible way to cast a spell on him: showing herself nude on television. Keith thinks he can control television because he can videotape it and play it at different speeds, and if he can control it, maybe he can influence the world at large. Yet when he is finally about to appear on it, he becomes bewildered: “Himself on TV: he couldn’t work out how the two worlds overlapped.” Keith is shocked to discover that the pub in his darts program is merely a set. The world he thought he knew so well, the one thing in life he trusted, turns out to be a false reality.

English novelists have traditionally been realists writing about the surface of society and drawing almost exclusively on their English predecessors as literary influences. Amis comes from a generation of English writers such as Julian Barnes, Angela Carter, and Ian McFwen who have been influenced by continental, American, and Latin American novelists. While there are references in London Fields to Charles Dickens, D. H. Lawrence, and Evelyn Waugh, and although Guy Clinch is a Waugh-like innocent, the major inflences on Amis are Americans. When Guy surveys Nicola’s library, he says, “Your fiction shelves are the mirror image of mine. Apart from the Americans.” Guy represents traditional society; she, a more eclectic world.

In addition to allusions to Saul Bellow, Thomas Berger, Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, and John Updike, Amis displays the infuence of writers outside the United Kingdom in his use of a self-conscious narrator, as does Nabokov, whom Amis has called his favorite writer. Sam, who resembles Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, worries that readers of his novel will think he has invented what he is simply reporting. He takes the reader into his confidence in discussing problems facing the novelist: “When I take on Chapter 3, when I take on Guy Clinch, I’ll have to do, well, not happiness, but goodness, anyway. It’s going to be rough.” Sam quibbles about his structure and style, regretting that he must rush through the writing process because his health is declining. Although the reader has to take Sam’s word that he is dying (no other character notices anything is wrong with him), Sam insists, “Man, am I a reliable narrator.” He is bothered by the implications of his roles as participant and creator: “writing brings trouble with it, moral trouble, unexamined trouble.” He notes a discrepancy between the reality of art and the reality of life: “Perhaps because of their addiction to form, writers always lag behind the contemporary formlessness. They write about an old reality, in a language that’s even older. It’s not the words: it’s the rhythms of thought. In this sense all novels are historical novels.”

His narrator’s neuroticism and potential unreliability are among the devices Amis employs to modify the darkness of what is essentially a comic novel. Typical of the undercutting humor is Sam’s consideration of the possibility of being “in a book written by somebody else.” Amis signs an introductory note “M.A.,” and Nicola’s diary frequently refers to an “M.A.” The latter is Mark Aspery, the hack novelist and playwright in whose apartment Sam is staying. Nicola has had an affair with Aspery and destroyed his one attempt at writing a serious novel. Aspery is successful in life and with women in a way Sam can never be, and Sam seems intimidated by him even though Aspery is never physically present. Sam’s nemesis ridicules all he does, suggesting in a note that he is wasting his time with his novel: “It doesn’t matter what anyone writes any more.… The truth doesn’t matter any more and is not wanted.” London Fields offers lively evidence that the novel—and the contemporary English novel in particular—does matter.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Thibune. March 4, 1990, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. April 11, 1990, p. 12.

London Review of Books. XI, September 28, 1989, p.7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 4, 1990, p.3.

The Nation. CCL, April 23, 1990, p.565.

The New Republic. CCII, April 30, 1990, p.45.

New Statesman and Society. II, September 22, 1989, p.34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, March 4, 1990, p. 1.

Newsweek CXV, March 5, 1990, p. 62.

The Observer. September 24, 1989, p.47.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, January 5, 1990, p.62.

The Spectator. CCLXIII, September 23, 1989, p.36.

Time. CXXXV, February 26, 1990, p.71

The Times Literary Supplement. September 29, 1989, p.1051.

The Wall Street Journal. March 13, 1990, p. A14.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, February 18, 1990, p.3.

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Thibune. March 4, 1990, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. April 11, 1990, p. 12.

London Review of Books. XI, September 28, 1989, p.7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 4, 1990, p.3.

The Nation. CCL, April 23, 1990, p.565.

The New Republic. CCII, April 30, 1990, p.45.

New Statesman and Society. II, September 22, 1989, p.34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, March 4, 1990, p. 1.

Newsweek CXV, March 5, 1990, p. 62.

The Observer. September 24, 1989, p.47.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, January 5, 1990, p.62.

The Spectator. CCLXIII, September 23, 1989, p.36.

Time. CXXXV, February 26, 1990, p.71

The Times Literary Supplement. September 29, 1989, p.1051.

The Wall Street Journal. March 13, 1990, p. A14.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, February 18, 1990, p.3.

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