Urban Severity: London Fields by Martin Amis 

After having shaken off the unsuitable sobriquet of enfant terrible – the vigilant French euphemism that the literary world had offered an author for which they were not quite prepared – a chain smoking Oxford graduate whose first novel, The Rachel Papers, bordered on the pornographic – Martin Amis was seen as the descendant of the twentieth century cohort; a natural progression from Vonnegut, Heller, Mailer, Updike and Bellow. Yet when considering Amis, the unrepentant orchestrator of the plots of Yellow Dog, Lionel Asbo and particularly London Fields, parallels with an altogether different author can be drawn. When reading Amis’ 1989 novel, London Fields, Harold Pinter’s description of Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “he is the most courageous, remorseless, writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the sh*t the more I am grateful to him.” Amis would not be flattered by the comparison, having once in conversation with Salman Rushdie described Beckett’s prose as ugly and “full of negatives”, yet the remorseless lack of withholding information, the excessive detail of pornography, of excrement, of violence and illness and death which are so prominent in the novels of Martin Amis, is Beckettian in style. If, in How It Is, Beckett has his protagonists crawling through the mud on a journey of self-discovery, Amis forces his characters to metaphorically crawl through the mud, because he knows that he can, and that being his own loathsome creations, they probably deserve it. 

London Fields, much like Lolita and Wuthering Heights, is built upon the premise of death upon arrival. Samson Young, the novel’s narrator and also the creator of the plot – for the other characters are only present through Samson’s narrative, in his hope of concocting a “speedy thriller” which will award him authorial success – has returned to London from Manhattan to write, and also to die, due to an unspecified terminal illness which presents him with “dizzy spells” and requires constant doses of codine. Samson’s fictional anti-heroine, Nicola Six, is a self-appointed murderee, who aims to die before she turns thirty five and spends most of the novel choosing between the two male characters in an attempt to decide which is the better murderer. John Sutherland, in his London Fields introduction, reminds us that thirty five is the “Dantean age” when descent into the inferno begins; within the novel’s pages Amis does not allow his reasoning to be so erudite, choosing to justify Nicola’s decision by suggesting that polar opposites need one another: “the failed suicide attempt needs a murderer, so the murderer needs a murderee.” London Fields missed the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize in 1989 due to apparent “misogyny,” yet of all of Amis’ women, usually long suffering at the hands of their husbands and partners, Nicola Six is surely the most three dimensional and one of Amis’ most carefully considered creations. She is heavily linked with sex – something Amis and a great deal of other writers can never quite escape when writing about the female – but this is worlds away from the description of “woman-crammed” clothing in Yellow Dog. Despite having worked as a prostitute, a deliverer of kissograms, and having claimed to sleep with Arabic royalty, the reader feels that none of this was imposed upon Nicola, and rather that she wields the power within the novel, even over her creator himself. 

Like Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, Samson Young claims to be a ‘reliable narrator’. Also like Nick Carraway, these claims are proven to be false. As Samson (a name given with wonderful irony) continues with the novel and his health declines, his characters (all stronger than him) slip out of his control. After some resistance, Samson succumbs to the inevitable and the characters have voices of their own in the novel, with Samson not even having a say in his own ending in the narrative. Realistically, this seems an impossibility, but beneath the surface, Amis appears to be making a valid point: that characters often do develop personalities of their own and slip out of authorial control. This is another similarity to Beckett, who used to sit with a piece of paper and only write when a voice came to him. Samson Young appears to encompass many of Amis’ weaknesses and none of his strengths: he is disfigured by fear of his own demise (Amis revealed his mortality was all he could think about upon turning forty), is loathing of London (comparing white bread to “the brain of an animal more stupid than a sheep”) of Manhattan, of his illness, of lack of success, of desire. Later on in the novel, Samson will fulfill Amis’ prophecy that most authors, in some way, have relations with their characters, by means of a rather dubiously imagined sex scene with Nicola Six. 

John Sutherland, amongst other reviewers, has accused Amis of “riding the hobby horse too hard” in London Fields, and it can be argued that all of Amis’ creations allow him to indulge himself in some way. While Samson Young allows indulgence in more vulnerable qualities (fear, remorse, insecurity) Keith Talent, Amis’ tribute to 1983 Darts World Champion Keith Deller, allows Amis to once again fuel his obsession of writing about the lowest, morally exempt individuals in society. Keith is the novel’s supposed murderer, except Nicola believes him to look more like a “murderer’s dog”. He is undoubtedly the proletarian precursor to 2012’s Lionel Asbo, the sort of man who became a cheat because he failed at petty crime, who unapologetically has affairs with a variety of women, who only stops raping people because he realises that he cannot profit from it. Yet there is a humorous element to Keith: he is taught, by Nicola, to read poetry by the Romantics, and Wuthering Heights, in the hopes that he will become ‘Keithcliff’. He defends his relationship with sixteen year old Debbie, allows his wife to call their child Kim, and is easily manipulated by Nicola. Keith is something of an amusement for Amis, from his ferocious interest in darts to his own name (the sound of Keith has always amused Amis.) Keith’s role in London Fields is that of the cheat, yet all three of Samson Young’s main characters could be cast in this role. Sometimes, Amis’ reasons for interest in these characters is transparent: Keith Talent, because he clings to the underbelly of society; Nicola Six, because she is easily desired; Guy Clinch (the ‘other’ man in the novel, a weak, gangly, sort reminiscent of Stephen Merchant) because he seems so unlikely to have an affair, yet he does. Guy’s thoughts on his marriage after the affair are brilliantly summarised by Amis: “so distorted now, in his feelings for her, by the weight of what she didn’t know.”

If Money is a suicide note, which it is, and The Second Plane is a murder meticulously planned, then London Fields is an eclectic mix of the two. Nicola Six’s story is a suicide note, whilst Samson Young’s death is inevitable yet involuntary – but we soon learn that nobody in London Fields will escape the pages alive. Set ten years after publication, the plot stretching out into the final baking months of 1999, Amis’ Orwellian prophecy sees the world ending in an unspecified solar crisis. John Sutherland reveals that Amis had an interest in Physics during this time, which manifests itself in the form of the solar crisis “the sun shouldn’t be coming in low like this…setting the horizon on fire like this…burning so aslant like this.” Yet it is only the narrator that pays heed to the crisis (perhaps preoccupied with his own dwindling time on Earth) whilst the characters would rather think about almost anything else. Keith is too concerned with becoming darts champion, Nicola is too busy planning her own death to care about anyone else’s, whilst Guy Clinch attempts to salvage his previously perfect marriage – before his wife gave birth to Marmaduke, the uncontrollable child. 

On the surface, London Fields is a novel of suicide, sodomy and selfishness (all taking place in a city described by Amis as a somnopolis.) If it were by a less experienced, less ruthless, less critical author than Amis, perhaps that is all the novel ever would have been. Yet London Fields exists outside of time’s “temporal arena” (Nicola Six’s imaginary friend is Enola Gay, the name of the aircraft which dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945) and it is a disgusted tribute to what London has become, a novel within a novel. There is also a desperate reach for some sentiment, with Amis referring to Larkin’s bitter poem, Love Again, and a deliberation on feeling when discussing tennis: “even on the tennis court love has gone, even on the tennis court love has been replaced by nothing.” 

When Samson Young is being driven to his editor Mark Asprey’s apartment in London, the taxi driver from whom he draws inspiration for Keith Talent is described as having eyes with a hint of “urban severity.” It is this phrase which best encapsulates the prose of Martin Amis; his characters are forever on a decline from morality, from sanity, from love. And they – even with their own voices, are completely out of control – forced to look out of unfamiliar windows of high rise glass buildings as they try desperately to crawl back into the past.