Friday, August 20, 2010

London Fields by Martin Amis

This is the second volume (1989) of what is loosely referred to as Amis' "London Trilogy." And if we consider Money hors d'oeuvres, this is no doubt the main course, a jaw-droppingly brilliant, complex, funny, ambitious novel, comparable to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. It is humbling to read a novel that acts on so many levels, especially the act of involution, a hallmark of Amis' postmodern trailblazing. Amis orchestrates a mindbending play on narrative authority, just who is in control of the novel. Postmodernism has as many definitions as those willing to provide them. Amis talks about postmodernism as playing with formerly stable notions of linear time, involution (the author's presence in his tale), self reflexivity, and the conflation of high art and mass culture. In this book, involution is taken to the extreme.

The book takes place in 1999, although the reader has to work a bit to see this clearly, the date is never explicitly stated, although the word "millennium" appears in a number of instances (the Note and pp. 138, 349, 369, 435), where popular usage (i.e. the cardinal system, in the ordinal system it's the end of 2000) treats the end of 1999 as the end of a millennium. Late in the book, the narrator says "Me, I'm for ride-out. They must get past the millennium" (p. 349). Also, I have been told by the Amis scholar Thorbjørn Lind that the German edition was titled 1999.

The book is filled with oxymorons, right from the get go in the title London Fields. Of course, London is urban and fields are not "This is London; and there are no fields. Only fields of operation and observation, only fields of electromagnetic attraction and repulsion, only fields of hatred and coercion" (p.134). The characters' names are oxymoronic, like Keith Talent - he just didn't have the talent" (p.5) and Samson Young (the narrator, dying of cancer). At one point Samson's publisher says "And we're unhappy about the names, sir" (p.160). The book is laid out in 24 chapters, implying linear time and order, yet there is none. Each chapter is made up of two parts, the story mediated through a traditional third-person point of view and then the thread mediated through the first-person narrator, Samson. Hence, we have the novel Samson is writing intertwined with his diary. Samson has a problem, he can't write, that is, he can't invent - "to invent the bald facts of a life (for example) would be quite beyond my powers" (p. 39). He can only act as a scribe to record events as they happen, a diarist. He relies on the characters to flesh out the details of his book, especially Nicola - "I too have need of the Fast Forward. But I must let things happen at the speed she picks." (p. 40) Ultimately, his ability to control the outcome of the book is called upon, and he must step outside the book and take control (see below). But there exist higher authorities in the narration, namely Mark Asprey (pseudonym for Martin Amis), but I digress.

First, some more about the narrator, Samson Young (oxymoron as he is dying). The book opens with Sam leaving New York for London, swapping apartments with renowned author Mark Asprey. It is curious that the narrator is American. M.A. never enters the story, always resides in the background, referenced only in Sam's diaries. Asprey, in turn, has his own pseudonym Marius Appleby, the latter who writes unreliably a memoir of his own life, filled with false claims. Amis is making a comment on mass media's corruption of reading, it's unreliability, and how we rely on tabloids and gossip to acquire information. The book is dedicated "to my father." Is that Kingsley Amis or is that the narrator's father, who we learn was a plutonium metallurgist (pp. 161, 324), a clue to Sam's "radiogenic" (p. 161) disease. There is also a Note that precedes the text, signed by "M.A." Is that Martin Amis or Mark Asprey ? In the Note, M.A. spells out his choice of book title, passing up on The Death of Love. This theme will resonate throughout the book. The book begins with Samson's diary "This is a true story but I can't believe it's really happening. It's a murder story too. I can't believe my luck. And a love story..." (p. 1) True story, murder story, love story, we have the themes. Of course "true story" is an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp ! The novel will be both real and fiction. A few words later, the dying narrator says "I must remain calm, I'm on deadline here too, don't forget." (p. 1) He describes the book "Not a whodunit. More a whydoit." (p.3) In the end, it all revolves around the main character Nicola and how to reconcile her choices. Sam makes a great quote "I think it was Montherlant who said that happiness writes white: it doesn't show up on the page" (p.23), well there is not a lot of white space in this novel.

So here is the intriguing story, all told against a backdrop of a pending environmental disaster and change in the earth's axis called the Crisis. Nicola Six (the Murderee) (the name so eerily close to Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe) arranges for Keith Talent (the Cheat) and Guy Clinch (the Foil) to murder herself, albeit it unbeknownst to them. Nicola manipulates the entire cast of characters, ultimately, including the narrator Sam, to bring about her own murder so as not to face ageing. She "always knew what was going to happen next" (p. 15) and knows that she will die "some minutes after midnight on her thirty-fifth birthday" (p.18), after midnight November 5, 1999, "the day of the full eclipse." (p. 62) It is also the day of Keith's darts final (p. 207). To assure her death, she plays the characters off of each other so that come that fateful day, they will be motivated to commit the act. But who will prevail ? She knows, the reader doesn't. Late in the novel, she hints to the narrator " There's going to be a surprise ending. It isn't Keith. It's the other guy" (p. 435, note the pun !). Early in the book, Sam asks Nicola "Do you need Guy ? Couldn't you just edit him out ?" (p. 119) Clearly, Sam is not seeing the whole picture. But she's only giving him a partial hint. She presents totally different personas to her potential murderers. She has no capacity for love (p. 21). To Guy, she is a frigid virgin (p. 133), lived in an orphanage, had a friend Enola Gray (a name Guy fails to recognize as name of the aircraft that dropped A-bomb on Hiroshima, p. 124) who was raped and had child Little Boy (name of A-bomb). Feigning love for Guy, she sexually teases him in an ever escalating manner for 400 pages. She extorts money from the wealthy Guy under the pretense of finding Enola Gray and son, but forks the funds over to Keith Talent, to cover his gambling debts, so as to avoid loan sharks breaking his finger and ruining his chances to win the darts tournament. Keith, a pornography addict and petty thief is kept by Nicola through her home videos (he is more interested in watching her videos than joining her, very postmodern media commentary). At one point he blames an episode of impotence on "pressures of darts" but Nicole (no slouch on the postmodern condition herself) knows better "Yes. And a little difficulty switching from one medium to another. That's what this whole thing is really about" (p. 429).

The book builds to a crescendo, Keith loses at the darts final, and suffers the double indignity of losing Nicola to a character introduced late in the novel, Chick Purchase (p. 461). At the same time, it dawns on Guy that he has been duped, he wrestles with Keith and wins, to go after Nicola herself. Meanwhile, the narrator Sam (who is slowly dying of cancer and has no certain life going forward) has been self-appointed protector of Kim Talent, Keith's daughter, as she has abusive parents. Sam steps out of the narration into the story - "I'm here. I'm in it. And how strange it is in here" (p. 464), to make a deal with Guy - "We closed our deal (p. 465) - to spare Guy's consequent life as a murderer in exchange for caring for the baby Kim. In the final scene, the narrator does the deed at the encouragement of Nicola - "Please. It's all right to do it...It's all right'" (p.467). Now we know why Guy could not have been edited out, since Sam could not have made the deal with Keith (as an abusive father).

After taking a suicide pill (p. 466), Sam sums it all up - "I was the worst guy. I was the worst and last beast. Nicola destroyed my book. She must have felt a vandal's pleasure. Of course, I could have let Guy go ahead and settled for the 'surprise' ending. but she knew I wouldn't. Flatteringly, she knew I wasn't quite unregenerate" (p. 466). What is he saying ? That he was a moral character and found a way to spare Guy and save Kim. Think back to the alternate title The Death of Love. In the end, Sam's act is the only evidence that love is not dead. Yet from his standpoint he is an artistic failure as his novel was compromised. We're not done yet. So wait a minute, if she was encouraging Sam to bring her life to an end, was it always part of her scheme, just that Sam never knew he'd enter the novel and "ruin" his work of art ? But there's even more.

Throughout Sam's diaries, he meets with the characters, not only to glean information, but also to surreptitiously direct the action. He makes recommendations to the characters. By virtue of the fact that he never appears in the "novel" he has effectively edited himself out. He does have a keen sense of crossing the line - "Mindful of Heisenberg's principal that an observed system inevitably interacts with its observer - and aware too that the decent anthropologist never meddles with his tribe...." (p. 181) he agonizes over his influence, which he naively believes to be omnipotent. At one point, not surprising, Sam has sex with Nicola - we only learn this from "We put our clothes back on and went out walking" (p. 391), only to later discover she also had sex with Mark Asprey (p. 305). Despite his best efforts to remain neutral, Sam realizes that "I am implicated. I can't understand the implication" (p. 209).

After the novel ends, the book is followed by two letters from Sam, to Mark Asprey and Kim Talent. In the letter to M.A., he instructs "Be my literary executor: throw everything out." (p. 468) In the end, we safely assume that Asprey has ignored the request and published Sam's novel, as well as his diaries. It is the sum of the two contributions that forms the entirety of London Fields. At the end the book, it appears that Asprey has appropriated Sam's narrative as his own ! But Sam foreshadows this notion - Sometimes (I don't know) I take a knight's jump out of my head and I think I'm in a book written by somebody else" (p. 409). Critics have called this book a dramatized contest for authorship.

Lest the reader think I figured this all out myself, I defer to a brilliant and wonderful Danish Masters thesis (113 pages) by Græsborg and Lind (2000) of Aalborg Univ., downloadable from the Martin Amis website They do a deep dive into Roland Barthes erudite concepts of "readerly" and "writerly" texts as well as an insightful discussion of story (fabula) vs. discourse (syuzet). Fabula and syuzet are very relevant, as Amis is a master of stringing together a tight fabula, but testing the reader's patience with a very disjoint syuzet.
There is a large amount of scholarly work on this novel. Despite some false starts, no movie has been made.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Money : a Suicide Note by Martin Amis

Money (1984) is the first of three novels (followed by London Fields and The Information) that are commonly referred to as Amis' "London Trilogy." Amis' protagonists are passionate iconoclasts and strive to escape the banality and futility of their lives, amidst a world of amorality and greed. They shuttle between London and New York in an era where there was no shortage of sordidness and debauchery. Those who frequented Manhattan in the 1980s will recognize a pre-Giuliani city replete with peep shows on 42nd St., hookers in hot pants in front of Port Authority, and junkies and panhandlers taking control of parks like Union Square. I know I digress, but readers are well rewarded reading Malcolm Gladwell's insightful chapter on how mayor Giuliani (1994-2001) cleaned up New York with a zero-tolerance approach, in his book The Tipping Point (2000).

Lest the reader get hung up in the bleak imagery, it should be noted that this is a very rich novel, this is Literature with a capital "L." It is lauded as groundbreaking in it's use of language and character development, often compared to Nabokov's Lolita (Nabokov making a huge impression on Amis), especially in terms of the concept of the artist manqué. The dialogue sometimes takes on the character of a chess match in its timing, precision, and complexity. Late in the novel there is a great reference (p. 349) to "Zugzwang," meaning forced to move, whoever has to move has to lose. Time included the novel in its list of the 100 best English-language novels of 1923 to 2005 (

John Self, the protagonist, is an ad man and director of a movie "Bad Money." A chain smoker, he is an alcoholic and pornography addict, he is obsessed with money and has a very limited view of the world. He refers to his flat as a "sock," a term which is explained in Amis' book Experience (p. 306n). Fielding Goodney, producer, contacts him to leave London for New York to help cast the movie. He leaves his girlfriend Selina Street behind. In New York, he falls for sophisticated Martina Twain (read double), whose husband Ossie, is having an affair with Selina. The novel starts out with a suicide note, in brief, Self realizes late in the novel that his true father is Fat Vince, and with this knowledge, Self ceases to exist (the suicide).

An actual character by the name of Martin Amis is inserted in the novel much the same as Nabokov figures into Lolita. "This writer's name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heardcof him. Do you know his stuff at all ?" (p. 72) "Martin Amis was in the book all right - in fact he as there twice, once as Martin, once as M.L." (p. 219). This is the epitome of a post-modern novel, calling to attention the fact that a work of fiction is, in fact, a work of fiction. It is noteworthy that the author imbibes himself with the most sane and stable of character traits of anyone in the novel.

Throughout the novel, a mysterious character (referred to as Frank the stranger) keeps calling Self without identifying himself, but seems to know every detail of his whereabouts. Self manages to ignore him for most of the novel until he has an ultimate confrontation. Themes from Shakespeare's Othello frequent the novel, generally over Self's head. When Self and Martina go see Othello at the opera, Self fails to understand that Desdemona remains true to Othello, as Self says "The flash spade general [Othello] arrives to take up a position on some island [Cyprus], in the olden days there, bringing with him the Lady-Di [Desdemona] figure as his bride. Then she starts diddling one of his lieutenants [Cassio], a funloving kind of guy whom I took to immediately." He's missed the point. The story line crops up again when Self finally is confronted by Frank the Stranger in an alley, only to realize it is actually Fielding Goodney. Self hears him say "I don't know. You - new man dog." (p. 347) The character Amis later explains to Self that the Stranger must have said "inhuman dog." These are Othello's words "Oh damned Iago. Oh inhuman dog," Goodney thinking of Self as Iago and himself as Roderigo in the play.

There is a point near the end of the book in which Self realizes Amis' role as author "I'm the joke. I'm it! It was you. It was you." (p.349) In a curious "endgame" the final section is in italics. This symbolizes Self's escape from the author's surveillance. In this section Amis shows up briefly, only to be told by Self to "fuck off out of it." (p. 359) Amis' status as an artist has been vehemently rejected by his creation. Matthew Dessem, critic, makes the case that the concept of artist manqué is critical in the understanding of Amis' novels. Self's failed attempt to turn his life into art is the essence of the artist manqué concept, where the artistic ambition is unfulfilled.

There is a massive amount of scholarly criticism on the novel, much of it can be found in the comprehensive website The BBC adapted Money for television as part of their early 2010 schedule for BBC 2 and featured Nick Frost as John Self and Jerry Hall (Mick Jagger's supermodel ex-wife) as Caduta Massi. Amis is known to have loved the adaptation.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Night Train by Martin Amis

Night Train (1997) is the only Martin Amis novel told from the perspective of a female protagonist, albeit a police with a rather masculine name, Mike Hoolihan. It is named after the song Night Train, originally written by Jimmy Forrest in 1952 and was a #1 R&B hit. James Brown covered it in 1962 and it is on his 1963 album Live at the Apollo and is also featured in the well known 1964 concert film T.A.M.I. Show. Diana Krall plays Night Train on Elvis Costello's UK television show "Spectacle" (both Brown and Krall on
We know that police Mike Hoolihan is a recovering alcoholic (she knows alcohol will kill her) and had been sexually abused as a child (p. 104) and had acted violently against her father at age 10. She wonders why her father called her Mike if he intended to abuse her, "Was he a fruit, too, on top of everything else ?" (p. 125). She is re-enlisted to homicide to investigate an apparent yet incomprehensible suicide by her former mentor and chief's daughter, Jennifer Rockwell. The crime scene consists of the nude corpse, but with 3 gunshot wounds to the head with a .22 revolver as well as lithium showing up in the "tox screen." As the pathologist, Paulie No, dissected her body, I had a recurring image of Courtney Love's song Jennifer's Body, with the recurring line "found pieces of Jennifer's body....", funny coincidence in that the unnamed location of the novel could easily be Portland or Seattle based on the geographic description, albeit vague.
Readers complain that this whodunit really has no payoff. A case can be made that it is really not a crime novel, because it is about suicide. Amis has a habit of subverting what we expect of plot. Patricia McGrath, reviewing the book in The New York Times (Feb 1, 1998) gets it, she invokes "the trope of the double being brought into play." Like Amis' masterpiece Money, heavily contemplating suicide, many characters are paired, like the "characters" Martin Amis and Martina Twain (hey, twain means double !) as foils to the protagonist John Self. In Night Train, Jennifer Rockwell, benefiting from all the advantages of privilege is paired with Mike Hoolihan, who is investigating a woman who enjoyed a life she never had. Despite or because of their differences, Mike is investigating herself as well as the victim. In Amis' novels, the craftier characters come out on top, or do they ? How will Mike cope with the information ? Especially when she realizes that Jennifer laid a red herring trail for her of false leads, knowing she was coming. Will death come out on top ? In the final scene of the novel, Hoolihan heads for the bar. Case closed.
In an interview (2/5/98) with Charlie Rose ( Amis reveals how enervating it was to write in the first person as a "woman", in an unmediated manner. He also reveals that he had an illegitimate daughter, Delilah, whose "father" committed suicide 10 years prior to this book, which had a huge impact on him.