LONDON FIELDS by Martin Amis; Harmony; 470 pages; $19.95
Readers of Martin Amis' earlier fictions -- notably Success, Money: A Suicide Note and Einstein's Monsters -- will find that he outdoes himself in London Fields. It could even be said he sometimes undoes himself, with his verbal brilliance and command of literary technique. No matter. As an uninhibited high-energy performance, as a bold conception of a world tumbling toward a loveless void, this British best seller is destined for a large and divided readership in the U.S.
Like Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, London Fields should excite the love-it-or-heave-it reflex. Those whose sensibilities were tousled by Wolfe's rough treatment of New York City will be put off by Amis' pitch-black satire about the other sagging capital of the English-speaking world. But those who found Bonfire's incendiary social commentary amusingly accurate should spontaneously combust over Amis' latest export.
First, however, there are a few complications to sort out. On top of proving once again that he is one of the most gifted novelists of his generation, Amis demonstrates that he is also among the cleverest. He writes about a writer who is writing a murder story about a crime that has not yet happened but is being staged by the victim. The designation is used advisedly. Nicola Six may get her head bashed in at the end of the book, yet she remains a good candidate for the most willful and neutering female ever devised by the pen of man.
More to the point, Nicola is an elaborate composition of male sexual / fantasies and fears. In the days of traditional humanist metaphors, she would have been likened to a siren or destructive goddess. Fast-forwarding to the quantum age, Amis associates Ms. Six with -- yes, folks -- a black hole.
Like his father, novelist Kingsley Amis, the author courts the charge of misogyny. Modified misanthropy would be closer to the mark. Almost anything on two legs is fair game for the Amis blitz. Keith Talent reads like a composite of every cheating, pub-crawling lout that Amis has ever met, which is probably quite a few. A typical Talent day includes waking with a hangover, a round of serial adulteries and petty larcenies, then hours of whetting his dart skills at the Black Cross. A typical business transaction includes stealing a shipment of perfume and, when finding out that it is mostly water, unloading the stuff on a store owner who pays him with counterfeit bills. Talent then uses the forgeries to buy vodka that turns out to be the nonperfume he stole in the morning.
Talent's foil, Guy Clinch, is a British Sherman McCoy, the Wall Street fall guy of The Bonfire of the Vanities. "He had a tremendous amount of money, excellent health, handsomeness, height, a capriciously original mind; and he was lifeless," writes Amis of Clinch. Samson Young, the narrator and American scribbler who thinks he is writing Amis' novel, represents cultural lowlife. "A little media talk and Manhattan networking soon schmoozed her into shape" is his oily take on subduing Guy's wife Hope.