July 22nd, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *London Fields* by Martin Amis

Martin Amis’s London Fields is a novel about murderee constructing her own murder. But a 470-page (my edition, anyway) book, like this one is, is going to be about a lot of other things, other people. There are four central characters, and a good dozen secondaries whom we get to know well, plus a dozen minor characters after that that we at least recognize. The most central of the centrals is  Nicola Six, the best named character ever, who is gorgeous, at the end of men, and wanting to die–in her own way, though not by her own hand. She befriends three men–Keith Talent, a London cheat (what it sounds like–small-time hustler) who wants to be a darting champion; Guy Clinch, a rich and titled father with a difficult home-life; and Samson Young, a would-be novelist whose one failing is his complete inability to make anything up.

That last is a fun little po-mo conceit–the novelist decides to write the novel of Nicola’s murder, because it is unspooling in front of him, no making-up required. Sam weaves in and out of the action, sometimes directly addressing the reader, or a future editor, or a rival writer. Sam comments on the action throughout and also, because he knows all the constituents, is sometimes a part of it. I’m even now trying to work out exactly the ways he might’ve been–could’ve been unreliable. I’m not really sure.

Sam is a fascinating character, though–the best-fleshed in the novel. He is American, in London because he has traded flats with another, much more successful writer, Mark Asprey. Through living in Asprey’s home and reading various notes and articles he has left about, Sam grows to loathe him both professionally and personally. But he has other problems–the novel he wants to write is deadline to his publisher and he has another deadline, too: he is dying. It is never explicitly said what disease is killing him, but various physical symptoms plus his unremitting vague references to global crisis caused me to think probably AIDS, or whatever they were calling AIDS in 1989 (when the book was published). Anyone else who has read it want to take another guess?

By a stunning string of coincidences, Sam finds Nicola’s discarded diaries and meets her when he tries to return them. Nicola meets Keith when she stops by his local pub after a funeral. Sam meets Keith when Keith is his driver from Heathrow to London and cheats him mercilessly. I think everyone meets Guy at the pub, too, but I sorta forget. This event happens at the very beginning, and it took me close to two weeks to read the book–long for me in general, though short for me on such a dense book. And it’s super-hard to flip back and double-check something, again owing to density–everything is embedded in a giant paragraph, each paragraph a swirl of useful info about the plot and random ephemera.

I found a lot of the ephemera funny–very funny–but I don’t know what it was doing in the book. Amis’s pet filler topics are: the strategies of competitive darts, traffic in London, unrelieved erections, and ill-behaved children. A single riff on any of these topics–and there’s probably at least half a dozen on each–can go on for over a page, not advancing the plot in any way, or even illuminating character. I guess it adds to tension, maybe, all these little peeves…

No, dammit–I can’t talk myself out of the notion that this book is just too long, and I’m speaking as someone who mainly enjoyed it. *London Fields* feels almost Dickensian at times, as if Amis were serializing it and being paid by the penny. Nicola’s plot is extremely complicated and goes on for ages. I’m not sure how long because the timelines are a bit obscure (it’s often not clear whether it’s the same day or a week later) but it seems part of her plan to leave Guy with a constant erection for over a month. At one point his penis seems to turn gangrenous and he has to start walking with a cane…no, I don’t know if any of that’s actually possible. Anyway! The point is, I was like, “Wow, this is so messed up, I wonder what purpose it serves–must be so clever and obscure. I can’t wait to get to the end.” As the book went on and Nicola’s actions got more bizarre, I read faster and faster, wanting to find out why, why, why.

I can say without wrecking it that there is no why for *many* of the events in the book–not for Nicola’s endless sexual tease of Guy, nor Guy’s bizarre embargo against masturbation. The novel’s crisis is a rat’s nest of plot fragments and characters with no clear motivation. And the climax is, yes, incredibly bizarre and moving, but part of me wanted to scream, “This could’ve happened 200 pages ago!!”

What saves the book, in the end, is Amis’s incredible joy in writing. This book is an indulgence–it seems pretty clear to me that he wrote if for fun and fun is what he had. That’s no bad thing, though, since he shares the fun. The rants about double-parking in London are as witty and entertaining as traffic rants can be, though that’s a limited sphere. The best writing is reserved for the kids–Keith has a baby daughter who is an angel, and Guy has a toddler who is a terror (poetic reversals much?) and all the riffs on both kids are fine and fizzy writing (though, in the case of Guy’s son Marmaduke[!] often disgusting: I have to admit I laughed when he “swamped himself with ordure” but still–ugh).

So…I liked *London Fields* just fine…I simply have no idea what the rave reviews referring to the novel being such a comment on modern times, so intellectual, so “nourishing”–I worry that I’ve missed a great deal of the content of the book. I really just thought it was funny. Anyone who wants to explain the rest, feel free.

This is my ninth book for the To Be Read Reading Challenge–3 books in the next 5 months should be no problem (famous last words??)

2 Responses to “Rose-coloured reviews *London Fields* by Martin Amis”

  • John says:


    I’m assuming you’re American (you sound American, though your spelling is English) and so the fact that you have constructive comments to make on London Fields in this ‘Rose-coloured review’ (what a lovely idea!) is good. And you’re a writer, I have just discovered having written all the below!

    However, I was surprised to hear that you didn’t think it was in any way a ‘comment on our times’ (those times…) and that you didn’t find the text at all ‘nourishing’ (a strange phrase, but probably accurate to some degree).

    How can this be? You just found if funny?

    It was you not ‘getting’ the many philosophical complexities written into the text, the endless stream of ideas, of rueful psychological snapshots, that made me assume you were American, because of course all English people naturally assume that all American people are stupid. That and the fact that you found the idea of the baby soiling himself disgusting.

    I’ve just had all my books moved to a new flat, so can’t quote you anything to illustrate my comment I’m afraid, but then you have the book, and can read on almost every page the things I mention above. I suppose I was prompted to write this because I was surprised that you couldn’t feel the ‘weight’ of it, the complexity of the text which is to me so evident right there on the surface, but also further down, if you read slowly (which I do!)

    And as regards plot, you did well (for someone who clearly loves a good plot) to get excited by the story unfolding, as Martin Amis is not really a plot-kind of writer, more of what he describes as a ‘voice’ writer, so its being involved in the writing more than being entertained by what happens to the characters (though there is more of that in London Fields than there is in some of his other books).

    Did he write it for fun? Partly, I would imagine, but writers tend to find that stories (or books) plead to be written (in the same way that the desire to be read), so I suppose the author was driven in some way to write London Fields, which suggests that he felt it had something to say (over and above being funny).

    Have you read Money? Much shorter, and equally superb in the language department (and very funny!) You could also try The Information (big, again) but I wouldn’t recommend The Pregnant Widow.


    P.S. I started reading The Words and its clearly better than most writing you find on the internet, so I intend to bookmark you and pop back when I have more time.

  • Rebecca says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m Canadian, actually, which accounts for the mainly British spelling, though any failures of close reading I’m going to take the blame for myself.

    I guess I got that society was being commented on, but just not what the comments *were*–what was the meaning of the low sun, or geo-political decisions being based on the American First Lady’s health, and why did neither of those image-strings come to anything? I seriously want to know the answer to that, if you have it.

    I wonder if part of the problem is that I was 10 when the book came out, and up until last month, had never been to London. This book seems *very* rooted in the problems of London in the 1980s, and I’m just not strong on that subject.

    But I do stand by my conviction that there is a lot of wasted space in this book–Keith Talent with Nicola Six’s panties over his head, peering out from the legholes with the gusset over his mouth and nose, for example. Funny, yes; but it doesn’t advance the plot, illuminate the characters or have anything to do with anything. Another thing I want to know is what on earth Nicola’s making of all those pornos for Keith to whack off to has to do with her plot? Or anything else?

    I’ve read both *Money* and *The Information* (but not *The Pregnant Widow*) and liked both much better, mainly because I gave a toss about the characters. John Self and Richard Tull, while not lovely humans, are so humanely, so intimately and consistently drawn in the novels that I cared about what happened to them, and kept reading to find out. Except for Samson, all the characters in *London Fields* struck me as funhouse-mirror caricatures, so mainly I was reading to discover the logic of the plot, not its conclusions. And was very disappointed to find that a lot of the illogical things are not explained at the end.

    The voices in the novel are, without exception, superb, but a voice warbling on with no point is a rather limited exercise. And I get that I’ve missed things and that thus this is a rather limited reading, but it’s all I have–whatever that deeper layer of the novel is, I can’t crack it.

    And to be perfectly clear, I’m not disgusted by a baby soiling himself; I’m disgusted by the image of a baby who “swamped himself in ordure” to the extent that some is peeking out the neck of his shirt. I mean, ew!!

    Awkward transition, but I do hope you enjoy “The Words”!

    All best,

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