I must apologise in advance if this entry is a little below the usual standard. I’m afraid I was out celebrating my birthday last night, and most enjoyable it was too. Kudos to all in attendance. Those not in attendance will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Anyway, the end result has been a hangover that feels as if someone is trying to pull my brain out of its skull cavity, and no attempts at a cure have so far worked. I’ve tried greasy food, caffeine, sugar, a long walk, going back to sleep and eating painkillers by the handful, and nothing has made more than a dent. The best cure, in my experience, is coconut milk, but I can’t find that for love nor money around here. I tried offering money first, then love, but it turns out my pallid and necrotic countenance is not as sensual as I had first thought.
So I’m going to go over a book I’ve been reading recently. It’s a little difficult to define a “London novel.” There must be thousands of books set at least in part in London. James Bond’s HQ is in London, but you’d hardly call his books “London books.” The Time Machine is set in London’s suburbia (and the ruins thereof), but again, you couldn’t say it’s a London novel.
I suppose my definition would be: could you set it anywhere else? In the case of, say, Oliver Twist, the setting is absolutely integral. You need the slums of Jacob’s Island, the respectable streets of Islington, the crossover-point that is the City, the roads and junctions. Their proximity and interrelationships are essential to the story. Oliver Twist is, therefore, a London novel.
The novel in question is London Fields by Martin Amis. Now, I know this is a very popular London novel, so when I say how much I didn’t like it, I’ll no doubt be accused of fashionably Amis-bashing, which seems to be the standard accusation levelled against those who dislike his work. But, well, I didn’t like it.
The story is told from four points of view. We have Keith Talent, a cheat (Amis’ term for a conman, italicised throughout the book), wannabe professional darts player and generally horrible individual. His reality is defined by the media – television programmes, tabloid newspapers and pornography – and so he can’t quite relate to society other than on those terms. Then you have Guy Clinch, a successful banker in a boring marriage with an out-of-control toddler. Then there’s Samson Young, a crap writer with an inferiority complex. Linking them all is the femme fatale, Nicola Six, who has decided that she wants to die. She manipulates the other three central characters with the aim of bringing about her own murder. Meanwhile, the city is in the grip of unspecified upcoming apocalypse, which is a Metaphor. Or the murder is the Metaphor for the upcoming apocalypse.
Now, I’ll admit that Amis isn’t all bad. There was, for instance, a joke I laughed at. But the characters are so broadly caricatured, and so obviously designed to serve a purpose, that I just couldn’t give a toss about them. And yes, I know the characters aren’t supposed to be likeable, but even an unlikeable character should have enough depth to allow you to identify. The most irritating of all, I think, is Clinch’s toddler, Marmaduke, whose havoc starts out as entertaining, then surprising, then finally tiresome and predictable.
The get-out-of-jail-free card is that Amis is writing about writing. Samson Young is a writer adapting Six’ life into a novel in an effort to prop up his career. He’s in a rivalry with the more successful Mark Asprey, whose supposedly real-life exploits are as real as his fiction, and by the same token we can never be sure which version of events is the one actually taking place.
I’m not a fan of writing about writing. I mean, yes, the unreliable narrator device is an interesting one, but too often writers-who-write-about-writers disappear up their own literary arses. Your book was remaindered? Baaaaaawww!
Then there’s the device of the self-insertion. If I was a publisher, the moment an author inserted themselves into a story I’d reject the manuscript. Amis is more blatant in Money, in which a version of the actual Martin Amis plays a significant role. In London Fields, you may have noticed some similarities between the names Martin Amis and Mark Asprey, the latter of whom signs his name as “MA.” What I hate about self-insertion is that ultimately, it carries the message, “Why, look at old Amis making fun of himself! What a jolly good chap he is!” Self-deprecation is all very well, but ultimately it’s still on your terms.
So, back to my earlier question. Is this a London novel? Well, it’s set in London. It’s not, as the title would suggest, an East London book, the title simply referring to Young’s unattainable desire to revisit childhood memories. The book, in fact, is set largely in and around Ladbroke Grove and Kensington, in a version of London that doesn’t really exist. The London of this book is a purely symbolic presence, having little to do with the real city (Amis’ version of Great Ormond Street Hospital, for instance, differs significantly from the one in our universe). The setting doesn’t reflect London so much as it does human society as a whole. Therefore, I don’t think it can justifiably be called a London novel – the grimy streets and upmarket residential districts are called London seemingly for convenience.
On that bad-tempered note, I’m back off to bed. In conclusion, Amis is annoying.