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The New Canon: London Fields by Martin Amis

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Readers love murder mysteries. But if you’re told the name of the killer at the start of chapter one, the suspense goes right out the window. Even worse, imagine that the murder victim knows everything in advance, and willingly participates in the chain of events leading up to the killing. Finally, let’s dispense with the detective, the investigation, and anything resembling justice or fair play—and just agree that this will be a story without heroes.

Welcome to the world of Martin Amis’s London Fields, and one could hardly find a less promising starting point for a crime story.  The victim, Nicola Six, has long possessed an uncanny ability to anticipate the future, and from the moment she enters our story, she already knows that her days are numbered. The designated murderer, Keith Talent, is low-level thug, a professional cheat, whose ambitions are restricted to petty crime, women, booze, his dog and improving his darts game. A third major character, Guy Clinch, is introduced as the unsuspecting “foil”—he is an affluent upper crust Brit whose desire to go “slumming” puts him in murky waters where he is more likely to sink than swim.

When an author anticipates so much of the plot in the opening pages, what possible hook remains? Yet if Amis has told us who, what, when and where, he leaves us in the dark about how and why. And the puzzle he thus constructs for the reader is far more intriguing than your typical mystery, since the plot pieces he hands out don’t seem to fit together. Keith may be a cheat, but is he really capable of cold-blooded murder? Nicola may have some forebodings, but why would she help orchestrate her own demise? Guy may be naïve, but how could he let himself get caught up in a senseless homicide? These are some of the questions Amis raises in the course of his novel, and much of the allure of London Fields derives from his masterful—and carefully paced—manner of answering them.

Amis is well known for his savage wit and a vivid imagination that probes for the raw and unseemly the way a doctor’s fingers might clean out a wound. His writing has long had an ability to upset readers, and London Fields is no exception—despite the support of three judges, this novel was kept off the Booker Prize shortlist because two other committee members were offended by his unflattering depiction of Nicola Six, the twisted femme fatale who sets up her own murder. Yet Amis is also an experimental novelist—a fact often glossed over by commentators—who has long been willing to shock or upset readers by flouting the rules of narrative fiction. His 1984 novel Money irritated the author’s father Kingsley Amis—another storyteller known for his sharp wit—when it introduced a character named Martin Amis. That was the moment when Amis père reportedly threw the book across the room, exasperated by such a brash violation of the “rules of the game.” In Times Arrow, the younger Amis went even further, turning the Holocaust topsy-turvy by constructing a whole novel in reverse chronology, akin to a movie played backwards.

In London Fields, Amis’s post-modern gamesmanship again comes to the fore. Here he presents the whole story as the work of a novelist, named Samson Young, who also serves as narrator of the story. We watch as Young constructs his love-and-murder triangle, but also as he negotiates with the publisher for an advance for London Fields, offers up observations on the literary life, and grumbles about a rival author whose London home he is using while writing his novel. Yet Amis pushes even further, and has his surrogate author actually step into the story, and socialize with Keith, Nicola, Guy and the other characters in London Fields.

This novelist may hang out with his characters, but he doesn’t bother to flatter them. If Amis had been a court painter in the days of nobility, he would have been fired, or perhaps beheaded, for depicting his patron’s hooked nose, hanging jowls and pot belly on large-than-life canvases. He does the same here, penetrating into the most narcissistic and self-serving corners of his character’s psychology. As noted above, the two Booker judges were offended by Amis’s depiction of women, as represented by Nicola Six in London Fields, yet what man can read his descriptions of the cheat Keith Talent, without cringing at this take on warped masculinity. And, to round things out, Amis presents readers with what may be the brattiest and most demented toddler in modern literature, the young Marmaduke, son of Guy Clinch, whose depiction here may do more to encourage celibacy and contraception than a hundred abstinence lectures at high school assemblies. Put simply, no one gets off with a warning and light fine in the fictional world of Martin Amis.

We read Amis for these very reasons. At the point where another author might pull back, Amis digs in his claws more deeply. But his novels, and especially London Fields, are more than just a guided tour of the squalid and tawdry. His prose is as darkly creative and hard-hitting as his imagination, and his control of the structure of this multilayered work stands in sharp contrast to the out-of-control lifestyles of the characters who populate his scenes. In an age in which readers browsing the shelves have often felt compelled to chose between experimental post-modern books and gripping narratives of real life as experienced in the trenches—sort of the Calvino or Carver trade-off—Amis has delivered a brilliant novel that somehow manages to achieve the highest marks on both fronts.

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About Ted Gioia