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Powells.com
Saturday, April 20th, 2002


 

London Fields (Vintage International)

by Martin Amis

A review by Jason Picone

Nicola Six is planning a murder. She's an irresistible woman looking for a couple of good men to do the deed. She'll have to settle for Keith Talent and Guy Clinch, the ruinously poor and ruinously rich male leads of Martin Amis's mind bending murder tale. Of course, what makes this situation especially intriguing is that Nicola wants Keith and Guy to kill her.

First published in 1989, London Fields has aged extremely well; it's so relevant to current events that it's a bit disquieting. Set on the eve of the millennium in pre-apocalyptic London, Amis's story begins, like all good mysteries, with the end, the day Nicola Six believes she will die. Nicola has always been able to see her own future, right up to the day of her death. Experience has taught her the futility of struggling against her internal prophecy, so, instead of fighting her premature demise, Nicola submits, and takes control of it.

Enter Keith and Guy. Keith is the impotent bad guy, who can only manage to steal a pork pie and some cigarettes during a robbery. Guy is the impotent good guy, whose name suits his homogenous, remarkably unremarkable life. Keith is a comic villain — obsession with darts, British street lingo, and incessant hedonistic practices provide the bulk of the book's humor. While Keith can be funny, he's never affable; he's always a thief, occasionally a rapist, and Nicola thinks he might make an excellent murderer. Guy is...Guy. He is somewhat in danger of being killed by his toddler, who inflicts roughly six serious injuries and thousands of dollars of damage every day, but otherwise, Guy is boring. Which is exactly why the vampish Nicola charms him so easily, twisting a nave loser into an impassioned man that she thinks will be ready for murder. Amis takes these ingredients and purees (whatever the setting is after "high," he's found it) for 470 pages. It's not pretty, or for the squeamish. There is more than a little blood. The author's gaze never wavers no matter how awful the thing he's describing. The book can be heartless, but it's always exhilarating and the examination of the three unfortunate individuals at its center is both compelling and disturbing.

While the murder is the main focus, there are at least 749 other things happening in this ambitious novel. Each of the book's 24 chapters has a short second section, ostensibly written by the recorder of Nicola's doings, an American wannabe writer, Samson Young. Sam is privy to all of Nicola's perverse plotting and manages to ingratiate himself with both Keith and Guy. He thinks Nicola's story would make a great book and he's pretty lousy at coming up with his own stories, so he uses hers. These sections are often more informative than the main chapters themselves, which don't always line ducks up into neat rows. Beyond that, they offer commentaries on the action of the novel, a self-reflexivity that adds yet another dimension to an already complex story. The other thread of the novel is the crisis, or as Amis writes it, the Crisis, which is more or less the apocalypse, always lurking in the novel's margins. The most prevalent manifestation of the Crisis is the threat of nuclear warfare, though pollution and unchecked capitalism are also in the Amis world destruction derby. The numbered days of the Earth are counted down concurrently with those of Nicola Six, a seemingly odd comparison that ultimately resonates with meaning. Amis charges that both Nicola Six and the Earth's inhabitants are complicit in their own deaths, welcoming doom simply because they believe it is the most likely outcome.

Read in the light of current events, the book is a warning against hopelessness and pessimism. Amis's murderers' triangle is an example of three individuals who take life too lightly, limiting themselves to narrow, unhappy lives because an omnipresent Crisis has hammered them into a despair they aren't fully aware of.

Despite its preoccupation with the apocalypse, London Fields is at least equal parts comedy and tragedy. How seriously can a reader contemplate Amis's fears when he bemoans the broiling effects of nuclear war, then laments that one of the chief losses in such a holocaust would be the many readers he would never reach?

Amis is a prose stylist and the language in London Fields reflects the novel's weighty subject matter. While his word sculpting can be at times overwrought, there is a sense that a good deal of thought has gone into every word choice. It's also clear that a tremendous amount of Amis's considerable candlepower has gone into creating this contemporary masterpiece, a unique literary achievement that burns as brightly now as it did upon publication.


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