British authors can do bleak and hopeless better than anyone I know. Most people think it is the French or the Germans, your Sartre or Camus or Nietzsche, but I think it’s the Brits. They know how to really mix the nihilism and the absolutely tragic to create a cocktail of bleak pointless hopeless cloudy grey depression.
I can’t tell if I liked this book, but I can tell you it was one of the more depressing books I’ve ever read.
The novel is sort of ‘meta’. There are chapters which make up the murder mystery, but there are also interludes narrated by the author of that murder mystery. He talks about how he gets his information, how he writes, his interactions with the characters. The novel he is writing is all true, all happening in real-time. Worse, we know the outcome from the very first page. We know the ‘murderee’ and the murderer. We know who will kill whom and on what day.
Let me say first that Martin Amis specializes in antiheroes, and these are some of the least heroic people I’ve ever read about. First, there is Keith Talent. He is identified in chapter 1 as the murderer. Keith is a truly despicable person, and the more we learn about him the more despicable he seems. He beats his wife, he sleeps with 5 or 6 women at a time, he has raped women, he steals from old ladies, he cheats everyone he’s ever met. His calling in life, the only thing for which he has respect and morality, is darts. What a perfect game for such a man. Played in pubs, while drinking. Such a pointless game; no strategy, no difference between playing someone good or bad because all you do is play the board. Darts is like golf, if all 18 holes were exactly the same. But Keith thinks it is the only thing worth caring about, probably because it’s the only thing he’s ever been marginally good at. As truly heinous as Keith is, after 500+ pages of living in his world you do notice small redeeming features about him, and things which make you sympathize and empathize with his situation. Tiny things, like trying to correct his semi-illiterate spelling, or deciding he should stop hitting his wife, or his general ignorance about the world that belie a truly appalling education level. It’s a tribute to Amis’ writing that, by the end of the book, you feel more sorry for him than you would think possible.
Nicola Six is introduced as the ‘murderee’. I found her to be the least likable character in the book, to be honest. By the end of the book I figured she pretty much deserved it. Nicola is a ‘sexpot’, according to the narrator. I’d call her a misandrist. She uses all of her beauty, her intelligence, and her skills to manipulate and hurt two men in the story, Keith Talent and Guy Clinch (more on him in a minute). With Keith, she makes him pornographic videos and lets him masturbate to them in her house, becoming more and more the personification of the naked girls in The Sun or in Keith’s favorite porn videos. With Guy, she tells him she is a virgin and slowly lets him teach her how to kiss, how to french kiss, and …that’s about as far as it gets. As a woman, I can comprehend that men have two main fantasies about us–the virgin and the whore. Nicola seems to think they don’t want anything in between. She is manipulative for no reason, she is cruel and heartless, and terrified of showing her true self to anyone. I really, sincerely disliked her. I’m a feminist, and I think women like Nicola set women’s rights back 20 years for every step forward the rest of us take.
Guy Clinch is perhaps the least complex of the characters in London Fields. He’s a titled aristocrat, rich and married. His child is possibly the anti-Christ. He is desperately unhappy with his easy life, and goes ‘slumming’ at a pub called the Black Cross. This is where he meets Keith and Nicola (and the author/narrator). As I mentioned, Nicola claims to be a virgin (to Guy only). He sees her as a complete innocent, and falls entirely in love with her, despite a niggling idea that she might be too good to be true. She works him into a sexual lather which amplifies over weeks and weeks. Like a dog, he follows her, obeys her every command. He is incredibly pathetic, weak, lacks all courage to change his life. When she humiliates him at the end, I don’t feel he deserves it, but…I do feel he should have known better.
Amis calls the book a ‘whydunnit’, because he tells us who will be the murderer and who the murderee on that very first page. This means that the 500+ pages of the novel can sometimes feel far too long, because there is no need to find out ‘what happens next’. Not only that, but Nicola (through a strangely undefined psychic power) knows that she will be murdered. She actively participates in manipulating these two men with full knowledge that it will end in her death.
But why? At the end of the book I was most frustrated by the fact that I hadn’t a clue why the murderer had killed her, nor why she had done any of what she did. The frustrating pointlessness of these events greatly diminished my enjoyment of the book.
Amis’ writing is spectacular, to be honest. He plays with language in a Vonnegut-esque way, he establishes some very human, complex, and comprehensible characters. He mixes the ‘murder mystery’ chapters and the ‘meta’ chapters with relative ease. That being said, it is not an easy read. It requires thought, input, a comprehension of the world. I don’t think I could have read this book 10 years ago and understood half as much.
I was watching Midnight in Paris last night, and when I think back about this book a quote from the movie’s version of Gertrude Stein comes to mind:
“We all fear death and question our place in the universe…it’s the artist’s job not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote to the emptiness of existence.”
Of course, Stein was speaking from a time before the postmodernist and very nihilistic trends in fiction really took hold, but I still entirely agree. Amis has inevitably captured a more accurate and realistic version of human life than a fairy tale would be. To be honest, though, if I wanted despair and pointlessness, I’d just watch the news. I don’t particularly enjoy it in my literature, no matter how well written. I thoroughly appreciated the technical expertise that went into this book, but I did not enjoy it.