Darts for art’s sake
- London Fields by Martin Amis
Cape, 470 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 224 02609 7
Nuclear weapons, by their very existence, ‘distort all life and subvert all freedoms’, and even thinking or reading about them for too long may induce ‘nausea, clinical nausea’. So Martin Amis in ‘Thinkability’, the introduction to his collection of stories Einstein’s Monsters. The monsters are the weapons – but also ourselves, who are ‘not fully human, not for now’. Given such a premise, the weapons must be written about by a novelist – what other subject is there? But how to do it? Amis says the subject resists frontal assault (rather as the concentration camps resisted frontal assault for an earlier generation of fiction writers), but Money was subtitled ‘A Suicide Note’, and London Fields might be called another. Nuclear weapons and their effects stay in the background, but their existence is to be taken as affecting the lives and characters of everybody in the new novel. One of them, Nicola Six, has a make-believe friend named Enola Gay, and Enola Gay was the name of the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
Vol. 11 No. 21 · 9 November 1989
Readers of Martin Amis’s London Fields may be interested in the following review, which recently came into my hands:
Oi: top of his game innit. Touch of ‘genius’ as such. 180! 2000! Martin, words! Sincerity at the desk. Pen clinicism. Got me down to a tee like. That Nicky, phwhore!, I could murder that. Bull finish, no danger. Yeah cheers mate.
I gather the review was rejected by the Sun Literary Supplement as being ‘overly on the highbrow side’. But I mean, if Keith doesn’t know, who does? Straight from the horse’s mouf innit.
Vol. 12 No. 2 · 25 January 1990
Martin Amis’s novel, London Fields, has created problems for its reviewers, some of the most intractable of which have been Amis’s own suggestions – some made within the book, some not; some made playfully, some not – concerning the place of the narrator/novelist, not in the novel he writes and acts in, but in the literary tradition to which he may be said to belong. Amis himself, from what I can gather, tends to place his Sam among the contemporary American novelists: Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov and Philip Roth. Indeed, it may be that he works too hard for the novel’s good to reinforce Sam’s modern American ancestry, and that the Nabokovian and Bellovian aura that he is lent fails to contribute, as it were, to the novel’s economy.
London Fields makes passing references to Dickens, and so does Julian Symons in his review of the book (LRB, 28 September 1989). Symons aptly compares Amis’s Keith Talent with Dickens’s Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop. The book of Dickens’s that I have in mind, Our Mutual Friend, makes a less pointed, but possibly more important contribution overall to London Fields. Dickens’s novel has an inoffensive social butterfly named Twemlow; Amis’s has a rankly offensive champion darts player, Kim Twemlow. Amis’s Guy Clinch – ‘rich handsome stupid honourable’, as Symons describes him – is often described by the fictional novelist Sam as a tool, or a fool. ‘I know who will be the foil,’ he says on his first page, ‘the fool, the poor foal, also utterly destroyed.’ In Our Mutual Friend, Bradley Headstone’s bungled attempt on his rival Eugene Wrayburn’s life only serves to reveal to Lizzie Hexam her previously sublimated love for that apparently caddish young man. Lizzie and Eugene go on to marry, to Headstone’s despair. As Dickens says (Book Four, Chapter 15), Headstone ‘had dipped his hands in blood, to mark himself a miserable fool and tool’. Amis, it seems to me, may have gone further, drawing upon, and imaginatively transposing, the whole of Dickens’s fatal triangle – Headstone-Lizzie-Wrayburn – in making that triangle his own: Guy-Nicola-Keith. Finally, we might be right to see in the dénouement of Amis’s novel what Symons describes as a parody of the conventions of the detective story. We might be right, too, to compare that ending to some of Nabokov’s fictional manoeuvres. However, we might remember that if ever any novelist made a name for himself by ruthlessly despatching his characters, either for bathetic effect (Little Nell), or simply to rid himself of someone his audience didn’t care for, that novelist was Dickens.
This is not to say that Amis is guilty of going under false pretences where Sam is concerned; he is not ‘guilty’ of anything at all. Only, it may be that a novelist will strive to leave an impression on his readers by every power at his disposal – for example, that his narrator is a Jewish American novelist transplanted to West London – and still fail to leave that impression if the novel finds it not to the purpose. Similarly, the novelist may advertise his dependence on some aspect of the literary tradition, while the novel itself draws on an altogether different dependence.