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.
Such a correlation may sound like a frontal assault, but for the most part Amis’s approach is crabwise and subtle. Yet the how-to-do-it problem is always there. Can nuclear fiction resemble what we call a novel, since we are all by definition Einstein’s monsters? Amis’s response is to say it can’t, and to blow the gaff on realism, even on ‘reality’ as we generally understand it. The narrator is Samson (the name of the narrator in the short story ‘Bujak and the Strong Force’), but this is also a work being written by Samson, whose activities are often interwoven with those of his characters. In Money realism was flouted by the appearance of Martin Amis in the tale, and here Samson, mostly called Sam, is temporarily occupying the swish London apartment of the successful dramatist Mark Asprey, who turns out to be also Marius Appleby, the handsome writer of a slushy travel book. And ‘MA’ is noted in Nicola’s diary as the only man she has ever been stupid for, ‘the handsomest, the cruellest, the best in bed (by far)’.
The chief puppets Samson tries to manipulate into what he hopes will be ‘a really snappy little thriller’ are Nicola the murderee, petty crook and would-be champion darts-player Keith Talent who is designed to be the murderer, and rich handsome stupid honourable Guy Clinch. All are outsize figures depicted in terms of TV soaps, pornographic magazines and the coloured dummies of advertising. A slapdash imaginative genius plus an unerring ear for the tones, turns and terms of everyday English speech of all classes turns these cardboard cut-outs into archetypal creations both menacing and comic. The semi-moronic half-smart Keith Talent is the most brilliant of them, a cocksman who moves from girl to girl but remains unsatisfied, and fails as a cheat because he often gets cheated. (He buys a box of sachets of his staple near-perfume ‘Outrage’, finds they contain pure water, unloads half of them in Portobello Road but is paid in dud tenners, swops the tenners for two cases of vodka, which turns out to be not vodka but ‘Outrage’.) There are moments when Keith approaches the stature of a hardly less malevolent Quilp. Dickens’s hunchback eats eggs shell and all, drinks boiling tea without winking, and bites a fork and spoon until they bend. Keith is prepared to bash his wife and other women about, eats curries so hot that the waiter and the cooks in ‘Retreat from Kabul’ watch in awe as he downs a sauce powerful enough to make smoke pour from his mouth and ears. He flinches, however, from clubbing a woman to her knees while engaged in robbery, and leaves it to another member of the team to lay into her with a rifle butt.
The range and power of Amis’s comedy is greater here than in earlier books. After Guy and his wife Hope produce an outsize aggressive monster named Marmaduke they are cautious about making love. ‘Their last attempt ... featured the pill, the coil, the cap, and three condoms, plus more or less immediate coitus interruptus.’ Amis can be funny about dogshit and the language of darts commentators, the oddities of sex and the destructive power of Marmaduke, and gets away with verbal trills like Keith’s distress when a ‘fat dome or bulb of horrorblood’ appears on his ‘damaged darting digit’. The comedy is never comfortable. When Nicola tells Keith about the devastating effects of the bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, and says the coral lagoons will be contaminated for hundreds of years, his response is first ‘Diabolical’, then ‘Chronic, innit?’
Nicola is done with less assurance. Tall, dark and thirty-four, with a past of blighted marriages and divorces, she has been, among other things, a telephonist, cocktail waitress, kissogram girl and fairly successful actress. She now believes that what men want at this end of the century is ‘the female form shaped and framed, packaged and gift-wrapped, stylised, cartoonified, and looking, for a moment at least, illusorily pure’. She is prepared to present this illusion, but her activities are a contradiction of such an image. She is promiscuous on principle, her thoughts dwell on sodomy as the most savage possible contradiction of that gift-wrapped purity. Amis links with the black hole Nicola feels herself to be after sex the fact that Enola Gay had a child called Little Boy. And – the revelation is kept until almost the end of the book, though many readers will know it already – Little Boy was the name of the bomb dropped by Enola Gay.
Nicola thinks in terms of pornographic fiction, as Keith does in darts language and TV clichés. In her relations with Keith and good guy Guy she, like pornography, promises but doesn’t perform. The book itself gets very near to pornography in passages like that in which Guy, tumescent for a month, is asked by Nicola in her role as a virgin why the thing sticking out of his trousers is so protruberant. ‘In some circumstances a woman will take that in her mouth? ... And suck? ... What a strange thing to want to do.’ How can such passages be justified? In part by saying they are ironic, but also by Samson’s telling Nicola that he’s worried readers (women readers, he might have said) will think she’s only a male fantasy figure. Her response is that she’s all that and more, she is a murderee. When she and Samson walk out into London streets where violence is ‘near and inexhaustible’, he reflects that it cannot touch them because they are the dead. Through such anti-realism Amis is able to touch up readers with bits of pornography but also disclaim it as part of Samson’s fiction, a fiction produced by somebody already dead. ‘Having it both ways, innit?’ as Keith might say.
Amis’s technical virtuosity is extraordinary. The dense excellence of his writing owes something to early Saul Bellow, more to his ear for catching and improving the phrase of the hour or minute; and a little, perhaps only by extension from Bellow, to Wyndham Lewis. Yet it is always original, colloquial and finely energetic, heavy with epithet and metaphor. Here is Guy going for a swim in Spain, he and Hope in temporary flight from terrible Marmaduke:
In his tennis shorts Guy stepped off the porch and walked past the car (the car avoided his gaze) on to the tattered croisette. A motorbike, an anguished donkey shackled to its cart – nothing else. The sky also was empty, blown clean, an unblinking Africa of blue. Down on the beach the wind went for his calves like an industrial cleanser; Guy gained the hardened rump of damp sand and contemplated the wrinkly sea. It opened inhospitably to him. Feeling neither vigour nor its opposite, feeling no closer to life than to death, feeling thirty-five, Guy pressed on, hardly blinking as he crossed the scrotum barrier; and it was the water that seemed to cringe and start back, repelled by this human touch, as he barged his way down the incline, breathed deep, and pitched himself forward in the swimmer’s embrace of the sea ... Twenty minutes later, as he strode back up the beach, the wind threw everything it had at him, and with fierce joy the sand sought his eyes and teeth, the hairless tray of his chest.
The style’s density does not exclude a sharp aptness of phrasing, sometimes flip or outrageous but always unexpected, never dull. A car is an A-to-B device, Keith looks like not a murderer but a murderer’s dog, baby Marmaduke snarls with asthma then is emblazoned with eczema, a boiler on the blink is a labouring gravity-bomb in a padded vest. Such a style involves taking risks. Amis’s refusal ever to write a commonplace sentence, his eagerness for out-of-the-way phrases, can lead to some pretty bad writing. (Keith’s eyes contain ‘a vertical meniscus of unshed tears’.) And such a style dictates, or at least affects, its material. It is aggressively masculine, would hardly do for themes handled by Iris Murdoch or Anita Brookner, might be found crude or distasteful by them.
This style fits perfectly the activities of parthuman Keith, Nicola and Guy, less well the naive approach to nuclear weapons made by the writer of ‘Thinkability’, and the contradiction points to a gap in London Fields. Although this is not a book with a ‘message’, it is still an attempt to suggest through fiction the desperate nature of what Sam calls the Crisis or the Situation. The life of the book, however, is in Keith’s activities as darter and cocksman, in the obliquities of Nicola and the conning of ‘the fool, the poor foal’, Guy. If one calls Amis’s approach to nuclear weapons naive, it is in part because he writes as if he were the discoverer of their suicidal deadliness. He puts ‘out of its misery’ the argument of those who say their permanent existence must be acknowledged by saying they can be dismantled, but the argument remains undamaged until some suggestion is made as to how this might happen. In the argument between Amis père (to whom London Fields is dedicated) and fils in ‘Thinkability’, Amis senior’s contention that nuclear weapons are ‘an unbudgeable given’ seems obviously right, although the phrase is less than felicitous. This is as much as to say that in view of the lunatic readiness of some governments and religious groups to contemplate the idea of indiscriminate incineration, the ‘nuclear problem’ is insoluble.
And if it is insoluble in life it is also intractable as a subject, even a background subject, for fiction. Enola Gay and Little Boy were terrible realities, but they are awkward fictional devices, Keith’s napalm sauce is in every way a bad joke, Sam’s self-questioning about whether the Crisis will reach the Conclusion an irritant driving one to almost Keithian reactions. The book’s ending, in which not Keith but Sam proves to be the murderer, parodies the conventions of the detective story effectively (they have had glancing attention elsewhere in the book), but is otherwise an example of the flip cleverness that is the least attractive aspect of Amis’s writing.
Put aside, as nearly as one can, the nuclear or propaganda element, and the often enjoyable but self-indulgent jokes of the Mark Asprey kind, and how much is left? Enough to make this the most intellectually interesting fiction of the year, and a work beyond the reach of any British contemporary. Amis’s figures, like those of Dickens, are caricatures that have their own gigantic reality. One can say of Keith Talent as of Quilp that his monstrous nature is not fully reflected in his actions. Quilp does little more than tormenting his wife and a boy who works for him, and Keith is confined to petty and often unsuccessful cheating, plus bad behaviour to the women he beds. Nevertheless he remains an outsize figure, the most complete portrait of a hooligan in modern fiction, born of the Sun, taught by the telly, worshipper of the dartboard. The darts matches are at the heart of the plot, the ‘Black Cross’ pub serves as a focal point for the characters. But the board is the thing (there is even a reproduction of it), and the way in which Keith’s rich gobs of darts language blend yobbish incoherence with mock-TV comment is marvellous.
First leg of the second set I was way back and he goes ton-forty and has three darts at double 16. When he shitted that I knew then that victory was there for the taking. In the third leg of the vital second set I punished his sixties and then – the 153 kill. Treble 20, treble 19, double 18. Champagne darts. Exhibition.
Rich, well-intentioned Guy, and Marmaduke whose smashing and biting capacities are only quelled at a session when Keith is left in charge of him, are comic figures of almost equal power. The enjoyment that has gone into the creation of these particular Einstein’s monsters has little to do with any propagandist end, and their mechanical comedy has its own magnificence and sadness. Near the end Samson says they are ‘like the streets of London, a long way from any shape I’ve tried to equip them with, strictly non-symmetrical, exactly lop-sided – far from many things, and far from art’. The last phrase is mistaken.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.