Martin Amis’s new novel is clearly the result of the same forces which he says prompted him to write Einstein’s Monsters: Parenthood and a belated reading of Jonathon Schell’s Fate of the Earth. In his essay ‘Thinkability’ he wrote that ‘the theme of nuclear weapons resists frontal assault. For myself I feel it is a background which then insidiously foregrounds itself. This is an apt description of London Fields where at some stage in the near future a nuclear and an ecological crisis are proceeding behind the personal crises of the characters in the main story.
Yet this is no Ben Elton or Raymond Briggs. It is unmistakable Martin Amis: deadly serious and very funny. The jokes are just blacker and further apart. And if it is about love and death instead of success and money it is still about being a writer as well.
An American author, Samson Young, is suffering from ten years of writer’s block. He swaps flats with a more successful English writer whose initials are MA and then discovers a real life plot going on in front of him which he merely has to write down as it happens. This narrative is what we read, as Samson introduces the characters beginning with ‘the murderee’, a failed actress called Nicola Six. The name sounds like sex of course and men do want to have sex with her. She is very good at sex and Amis is happy to oblige with the details. Anyone who remembers Selina in Money will recognise the impressive expertise in the lingerie department. In fact there is quite a lot of sex in the novel all round but this being Martin Amis it is not merely bestseller sex it is pornographic, masturbatory, obsessional, violent, under-age or anal.
Keith Talent has been picked out to be the murderer to Nicola’s anything but passive murderee. He is a violent criminal for whom violent crime is too difficult and who has resorted to being a low-life cheat. However his patch is not entertainingly low-life or his pubs cosy or his exploits endearing. His is the world of Minder seen not as picturesque but as dull, mean-spirited, vicious, amoral and stupid. It is as relentlessly tabloid as the paper Keith keeps rolled up under his arm and which he can barely read. Keith is one of Amis’s greatest creations, grosser and more mindless than John Self, the apotheosis of what the narrator keeps calling ‘modern’. Keith drinks lager, watches porn movies, lives in a. tower block, belts his wife and screws anyone he can which means women who are drunk, mad, paid-for, or in one case under the impression that he is a TV celebrity. This is ironic since Keith is desperate to be a TV celebrity and thinks that Darts is the key to escape from his life into the world he sees inside his television.
That only leaves Guy Clinch, the nice, rich aimless foil for the others to exploit. The novel progresses towards Nicola’s murder and the final of Keith’s darts competition. The end of the world also looms up in the shape of a new American idea called a ‘cathartic nuclear strike’ and the fact that the planet’s weather has turned completely bizarre. The narrative is fragmented, shifting, confusing and complex. It is also heavy with allegory. Guy is lifeless, Samson is dying, Nicola is looking for death. The moral climate matches the meteorological climate as the earth heads for the same fate. Is the human race the murderee willing its own death? Nicola has an imaginary friend called Enola Gay who has a son called Little Boy which must mean something, even if Guy does not pick up the Hiroshima reference. There are two children in the novel: in Amis’s ‘Thinkability’ piece it is from the children that the answers to the future have to come. One is a monstrous oedipal male who destroys the lives around him. The other is an angelic but abused little girl. Is there any hope? Guy’s wife is called Hope. The US President’s wife is called Faith. No-one is called Charity but the title for the book was going to be The Death of Love…
No doubt Eng Lit students of the future will be picking their way through these connections and it would be unfair to make the work sound overly sombre. Whatever else it is, the book is brilliantly written with a denseness of observation, an ear for dialogue and a linguistic invention that may be familiar but are still impressive. The names are still good with a Trinidadian liqueur called ‘porno’ and Keith’s favourite curry a ‘napalm’. Amis can spin from the inanimate into the animate:
‘People now treated themselves like telephone boxes, ripping out the innards and throwing them away and plastering their surfaces with sex-signs and graffiti…’
And vice versa:
‘We’ve turned the earth’s hair white. Jesus, have you seen her recently?’
Best of all Amis gives Keith a brand new language constructed from darts commentaries, tabloid headlines, brand names of luxuries and obscenities.
It is long, dense but totally involving right up to the surprise ending which is not the expected surprise. I think he perhaps should have called the novel The Death of Love. As he says:
‘If love was dead or gone then the self was just self and had nothing to do all day but work on Sex. Oh and Hate. And Death.’
That is what you are getting in the novel. And you get your money’s worth.