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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you dreisner. I couldn’t have hoped for a better summary. Jeremy