Monday, 31 January 2011

Something Amis*

As promised, here are a few thoughts about Martin Amis’ novel London Fields, which featured in my list of top-five-charity-shop-bargains. As I said before, it is an unconventional murder story. You can tell that because I’m over halfway through it, and nobody has been murdered yet. But we all know that somebody will be.

Nicola Six is a beautiful woman who knows what she wants, and what she wants is to be murdered. She wants to be murdered by Keith Talent, an alcoholic and abusive serial adulterer with a gambling problem and delusional belief in his destiny as a professional darts player. She also needs a foil, a patsy to play Keith off against, and this is where the wealthy, charming, pointlessly handsome Guy Clinch comes in – think Hugh Grant in, I don’t know, just about any film he’s ever been in.

As you might have noticed, the names have some kind of vague allegorical significance. I haven’t quite worked this one out yet. I think sometimes it just pleases the author: Keith’s semi-criminal drinking mates have names like Thelonious and Shakespeare, and his goodtime girl is the obviously anagrammatised Trish Shirt. Then there is Enola (try it backwards) and the sexually liberated Analiese Furnish. And so on.

There is, I suppose, an excuse for all this word-play. As with the recently-read Baudolino, the main plot of London Fields is framed by the narrator’s circumstances. The first person narrator is a struggling writer with his own problems, and therefore an excellent excuse for Amis’ richly misanthropic prose. This writer asserts that he is no good at making stuff up, so he is just reporting the facts, which perhaps accounts for the pseudonyms.

This situation also creates some interesting layers of reality within the novel. At one point, the writer turns up and demands that Nicola Six kisses him, in the interests of research. He cannot write about it, he says, unless he knows what it is like. What a good excuse.

The plot is one of entrapment, as Nicola Six grooms the two male leads for their respective roles, and there is a real sense of looming catastrophe behind all the sex and black humour. There is also a slight dystopian edge to the novel, with a number of sideswipes at the degraded morals of the end of the twentieth century, and an awareness of impending nuclear holocaust on the side. The narrator stands detached from all of this, immune to Nicola’s powerful charms, safe in the knowledge that he is dying from an incurable disease. So it goes.

This is not a cheerful book, but it is beautifully executed in a language that might sound self-consciously ‘writerly’ coming from anyone else, but which Amis gets away with. Nicola’s character is not always believable, something which the writer observes, asking her to be less of a femme fatale. She responds that she is not a femme fatale but a Murderee, plain and simple. All we need now is a murder.

*The title for this blog post is a gratuitous pun that I came up with. Then I saw that it had already been used for a post on the Guardian Books Blog. But I’m going to use it anyway. For more on this phenomenon, watch this space for something on pre-emptive plagiarism in the not-too-distant future.

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