The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
London Fields
by Martin Amis.
London Fields
by Martin Amis

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Readers love murder mysteries. But if you’re told the name of
the killer at the start of chapter one, the suspense goes right
out the window. Even worse, imagine that the murder victim
knows everything in advance, and willingly participates in the
chain of events leading up to the killing.
Finally, let’s dispense with the detective,
the investigation, and anything resembling
justice or fair play—and just agree that this
will be a story without heroes.

Welcome to the world of Martin Amis’s
London Fields, and one could hardly find a
less promising starting point for a crime
story.  The victim, Nicola Six, has long
possessed an uncanny ability to anticipate
the future, and from the moment she enters
our story, she already knows that her days
are numbered. The designated murderer,
Keith Talent, is low-level thug, a profes-
sional cheat, whose ambitions are restricted to petty crime,
women, booze, his dog and improving his darts game. A third
major character, Guy Clinch, is introduced as the unsuspecting
“foil”—he is an affluent upper crust Brit whose desire to go
“slumming” puts him in murky waters where he is more likely
to sink than swim.

When an author anticipates so much of the plot in the opening
pages, what possible hook remains? Yet if Amis has told us
who, what, when and where, he leaves us in the dark about how
and especially why. And the puzzle he thus constructs for the
reader is far more intriguing than your typical mystery, since
the plot pieces he hands out don’t seem to fit together. Keith
may be a cheat, but is he really capable of cold-blooded
murder? Nicola may have some forebodings, but why would
she help orchestrate her own demise? Guy may be naïve, but
how could he let himself get caught up in a senseless homicide?
These are some of the questions Amis raises in the course of
his novel, and much of the allure of
London Fields derives
from his masterfully coy—and carefully paced—manner of
answering them.

Amis is well known for his savage wit and a vivid imagination
that probes for the raw and unseemly the way a doctor’s
fingers might clean out a wound. His writing has long had an
ability to upset readers, and
London Fields is no exception—
despite the support of three judges, this novel was kept off the
Booker Prize shortlist because two other committee members
were offended by his unflattering depiction of Nicola Six, the
femme fatale who sets up her own murder. Yet Amis is
also an experimental novelist—a fact often glossed over by
commentators—who has long been willing to shock or upset
readers by flouting the rules of narrative fiction. His 1984
Money irritated the author’s father Kingsley Amis—
another storyteller known for his sharp wit—when it
introduced a character named
Martin Amis. That was the
moment when Amis père reportedly threw the book across the
room, exasperated by such a brash violation of the “rules of
the game.” In
Times Arrow, the younger Amis went even
further, turning the Holocaust topsy-turvy by constructing a
whole novel in reverse chronology, akin to a movie played

London Fields, Amis’s post-modern gamesmanship again
comes to the fore. Here he presents the whole story as the
work of a novelist, named Samson Young, who also serves as
narrator of the story. We watch as Young constructs his love-
and-murder triangle, but also as he negotiates with the
publisher for an advance for
London Fields, offers up
observations on the literary life, and grumbles about a rival
author whose London home he is using while writing his novel.
Yet Amis pushes even further, and has his surrogate author
actually step into the story, and socialize with Keith, Nicola,
Guy and the other characters in
London Fields.

This novelist may hang out with his characters, but he doesn't
bother to flatter them. If Amis had been a court painter in the
days of nobility, he would have been fired or perhaps
beheaded, for depicting his patron’s hooked nose, hanging
jowls and pot belly on large-than-life canvases. He does the
same here, penetrating into the most narcissistic and self-
serving corners of his character’s psychology. As noted above,
the two Booker judges were offended by Amis’s depiction of
women, as represented by Nicola Six in
London Fields, yet
what man can read his descriptions of the cheat Keith Talent,
without cringing at this take on warped masculinity. And, to
round things out, Amis presents readers with what may be the
brattiest and most demented toddler in modern literature, the
young Marmaduke, son of Guy Clinch, whose depiction here
may do more to encourage celibacy and contraception than a
hundred abstinence lectures at high school assemblies. Put
simply, no one gets off with a warning and light fine in the
fictional world of Martin Amis.

We read Amis for these very reasons. At the point where
another author might pull back, Amis digs in his claws more
deeply. But his novels, and especially
London Fields, are more
than just a guided tour of the squalid and tawdry. His prose is
as darkly creative and hard-hitting as his imagination, and his
control of the structure of this multilayered work stands in
sharp contrast to the out-of-control lifestyles of the characters
who populate his scenes. In an age in which readers browsing
the shelves have often felt compelled to chose between
experimental post-modern books and gripping narratives of
real life as experienced in the trenches—sort of the Calvino or
Carver trade-off—Amis has delivered a brilliant novel that
somehow manages to achieve the highest marks on both fronts.
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