London Fields

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2548 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.