Friday, May 16, 2008

Martin Amis' "London Fields": Book Review
I enjoyed this novel. I stayed up late reading it over six nights. Yet, when the structure of the story began in the last sections to erode, and when the climactic fireworks, on a variety of levels, that Amis had taken such glee in arranging failed to spark as I'd hoped, I felt let down. Much of the novel's capable of five stars. I had just read Nabokov's "Ada" & "Bend Sinister" (also reviewed by me, here and on Amazon where I posted this today), so I was curious to discover how an author considered an heir to such narrative pyrotechnics would fare.

Amis appears to strain to get into the head of his louche character, Keith. I sense that the author's milieu's closer to hapless Guy, and perhaps Amis had to overcompensate. As others have remarked, it's as surprising to us as to Nicola when Guy fails to catch the atomic references early on, and after his Oxford degree! Also, the level of moronic panting that Guy's reduced to in his admittingly entertaining pursuit of Nicola does strain credulity as well as his trousers.

Still, there's so much that keeps you reading. You learn a lot about darts, erroneous or factual. Baby Marmaduke's reign of nursery tyranny continues to delight Amis as he ups the infant's cruelty, and this gets a poignant (not a common sentiment in this heartless saga) balance in the cries of little baby Kim-- these moments turn heartbreaking, if ultimately unresolved off-stage, to my confusion. There's also confusion in the apocalyptic set-piece. "The Crisis" of a lower and nearer sun fails to end after the wonderfully evoked eclipse on "Horrorday," and I was never quite clear about what the American president's wife and the geopolitics and the economic stagnation all added up to. Not to mention who Nicola represented: there's hints scattered but these never cohere.

Similarly, Samson Young's character never gains the clarity of the main three characters which he purportedly's writing about; his own failed romance with Missy and the failed pregnancy fizzle and you're never quite sure what occurred the six days he was or was not overseas while Mark Asprey's back in the London flat. Nicola, of course, adds mystery at every level, and above all, despite the novel's flaws, her endless tease of not only Keith and Guy (the Keats scene's superbly demented) makes her unforgettable. I get the sense that Amis created a character larger than the novel itself, which considering the heft and scope of this warped Waugh- meets- Nabokov epic remains quite a feat, for all its inevitable and unfortunate consequences for the novel.

Here's a passage that stood out, among many:
Sam tells us "this story is true."
He goes on:
"The form itself is my enemy. All this damned romance. In fiction (rightly so called), people become coherent and intelligible-- and they aren't like that. We all know they aren't like that. We all know it from personal experience. We've been there.

People? People are chaotic quiddities living in one cage each. They pass the hours in amorous grudge and playback and thought-experiment. At the camp fire they put the usual fraction on exhibit, and listen to their own silent gibber about how they're feeling and how they're going down. We've been there.

Death helps. Death gives us something to do. Because it's a full-time job looking the other way." (240)

As Sam admits late on: there go my "unities." Amis may have been too clever in outwitting himself, like Guy playing chess with his computer, into a narrative corner he could not escape. It's an unresolved mess, but a witty panorama of a future (already in our past, pre-Internet and pre-cellphones) that two decades ago, with its vague terrors on a global level and the environmental decay and personal fatigue appears to be inching ever closer.

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