London Fields

Here’s a book that Masterpiece Theatre won’t want to film. Not a sturdy British virtue in sight and an even more repellent cast of characters than in Money, Martin Amis’ previous novel. By now the official bad boy of British literature, Amis tosses his mangled rats into the tea party to the generous applause of all. London Fields, which made it to the best-seller lists in the author’s native land, depicts a morally blitzed city, London after ”the death of love” and just about everything else except sex, money, and mayhem. For readers inclined to miss the point, Amis has included an apocalyptic flourish — a rogue asteroid is hurtling toward London in order to pulverize, Sodomize and Gomorrahize it. Meenwhile, there’s no one at home in this city except predators and prey. No fair English fields here, ”only fields of hatred and coercion. Only fields of force.”

Among the mutants at play are Keith Talent, an ambitious, untalented ex- mugger who has given up violence for fraud, darts, and indiscriminate copulation; the stunningly beautiful, severely jaded Nicola Six, who is devoted to what H. L. Mencken once referred to as non-Euclidean sex; Guy Clinch, a gullible upper-class twit who is a sadist’s dream come true; Guy’s infant son, Marmaduke, who seems what John Calvin had in mind when he described children as lumps of depravity; and Guy’s wife, an icy scold called Hope, whose sexual frustrations are finally relieved by monstrous little Marmaduke. All of whom are grist for the mill of an American writer, Samson Young, who has come to London to die of something like AIDS and who has stumbled on what instinct tells him is a lucrative murder story starring Nicola.

In assembling this noisome crew, Amis might have tried to write a Volpone for our time, a corrosive comedy of greed and lust. Unfortunately, he had other ambitions, particularly the self-reflective, metafictional sort that excite academic critics and bore the socks off everyone else. Bargain-basement symbols abound (Enola Gay, the name of the plane that dropped the first A-bomb on Japan, gets a lot of play). The standard political and metaphysical migraines occur regularly, posing as hard-boiled big ideas. Everything in this book is overdone except the murder plot, which turns out to be just another metafictional spare part. The real story line, apart from Keith’s ham-handed nastiness, is the sadistic daydream built around Nicola’s long, drawn-out humiliation of Guy, who is reduced to servility and a state of permanent tumescence by her impersonation of a hard-luck, angelic 34-year-old virgin starving for love and kisses. But so prolonged is the agony that the reader, instead of relishing every gloating detail, is likely to skip ahead, not so much to find out how it ends as to find out whether it ends.

London Fields has its moments — witty epigrammatic asides, sharp descriptive phrases — but they are submerged in 470 pages of pullulating cleverness and eager-to-displease overkill. It must be admitted, though, that the novel does evoke a nightmarish vision of contemporary London — a London where still-promising, still-immature 40-year-old novelists have been made captives of ruthless, predatory word processors, watching helplessly as every apocalyptic whimsy, subpornographic fancy, and forkful of stale intellectual fodder that enters their heads is sucked immediately into the machines without the intervention of self-restraint, modesty, or any other sturdy, traditional British virtues. C

London Fields
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