Posing as a Postmodernist: Race and Class in Martin Amis’s London Fields

Susie Thomas

An author must have an awful lot of like-minded readers before he can pass for an impressive thinker. (Musil)

<1> Martin Amis is considered Britain’s number one, top drawer, literary heavyweight. His reputation rests on a fancy prose style and an intellectualism that is nonetheless within the reach of the majority of readers, who are flattered into feeling clever and so credit Amis with being profound. London Fields (1989) is invariably regarded as an important, metropolitan novel, in the great tradition of Dickensian social critique. Moreover, its reference to an ecological and nuclear Crisis conjures with “the imminent collapse of modern civilization.”[1] Amis is no old-style realist and many critics have been impressed by his grasp of the latest literary techniques and philosophical theories. London Fields deals with the death of the self and the death of love, among other abstract fatalities. As a consequence his characters are cartoons, cavorting against the backdrop of an unreal city, unable to escape from the banalities of a London in terminal decline. If they have no humanity, Amis would have the reader believe, it is because the inauthentic, fragmented subject constitutes the postmodern urban condition. So the novel presents a metafictional maze of self-consciously literary characters and culminates, not just with the writer as murderer, but “the death of the author.” According to Frederick Holmes, “this aimed-for and ultimately achieved death is a postmodernist parody of the deconstructionist position on language and meaning. The murder is a way of supplying closure and generating a teleological structure which confers the extra-textual meaning denied by post-structuralist theory.”[2]

<2> But the really staggering feature of London Fields is not its narrative ingenuity or its millennial eclipse but the patronising representation of the working class who are, without exception, portrayed as vicious or ridiculous or both. The novel is not only anti-working class, it is riddled with racist stereotypes, jocularly passed off as comic caricatures. Equally staggering is the general stampede to praise Amis’s ambition and formal elegance and comic genius, while his snobbery and racism have gone largely unremarked. The implied reader of London Fields is white, male and middle class. Moreover, anyone who does not subscribe to negative stereotypes of black, female and working-class characters is likely to find it deeply offensive. Since Amis’s sexism has frequently been exposed, to do so again would seem like flogging a dead horse; the treatment of gender will only be considered here in so far as it affects Amis’s representation of race and class.[3]

<3> But first: does it matter if the black and working-class characters in London Fields are all caricatures? As Chinua Achebe asked in another context: “the question is whether a novel which celebrates ... dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art?” Achebe’s answer is “No, it cannot.”[4] In Amis’s case, it is no defence to argue that his dehumanised cartoons are created in the name of postmodernism; they are nonetheless exploitative stereotypes. It would be absurd to criticise Amis for being white, male and middle-class but it is, I hope, legitimate to point out that as a writer, Amis seems incapable of seeing beyond a narrow set of preconceptions about class and racial others.

<4> Amis assembles his gallery of grotesques in a pub in West London called The Black Cross. Samson Young is an American writer, observing the macabre human comedy being acted out in front of him. He is both a part of the story (in the chapters written in the first person) and the putative author of the novel we read (in the third person). Amis blurs the distinction between reality and fiction by having Sam announce in the opening sentence that this is a “true story” (ie, both real and a fiction)(1).[5] Sam describes himself as a “reliable narrator” (162) but there are times when Amis deliberately undermines Sam’s interpretation of the events he is supposedly recording. For example, Sam confidently asserts that the novel is not a “whodunnit” but a “whydoit” (3) and yet he is completely mistaken as to who the murderer is -- twice. He assumes it will be Talent, then suspects Guy, before finding out it is himself. Indeed, he finally wonders whether he has been in control at any point and suspects that he has been “set up” (468) by the absent English novelist, Mark Asprey, with whom he has swapped apartments. As Mark Asprey shares initials with the “real” author, perhaps we are meant to consider him as the mastermind behind the fiction.[6]

<5> Sam, then, is not wholly reliable but neither is he completely unreliable; on the contrary, his prose style is very much like Amis’s elsewhere: the same irony, the same tough-guy detachment and love of verbal gymnastics. The novel also makes use of free indirect style so that Guy, Nicola and Keith’s viewpoints and vocabulary are incorporated into the third person sections of the text. All of this makes for a very slippery narrative in which readers can never be sure what is meant to be “real” or what they should take seriously. In this way Amis can avoid responsibility for his characters and for what they represent. There is nothing outside the text; only a plonker, apparently, would think otherwise. However, it is in the nature of novels that readers respond to characters as if they were real and Amis encourages us to believe in Guy and Nicola and Keith, at the same time as he insists on their fictionality. The device of having Sam maintain that he is recording reality gives the impression that Amis somehow did not invent it. From Sam’s opening emphasis on his “honesty” and “truthfulness” as a writer (however ironic) -- “I’m not one of those excitable types who get caught making things up” (39) -- to his admission (or boast) in the final chapters that the book was “plagiarized from real life” (467), Amis insists on the authenticity of the experience described in the novel. So, he seems to suggest, if London is peopled with cartoons and clichés, it is not his fault; they really are like that.

<6> Nicola would appear to be a type too prevalent in literature to warrant searching for any particular provenance: the Femme Fatale. With a self-consciousness typical of the novel, she insists that, “Femmes Fatales are ten a penny compared to what I am ... a Murderee” (260). No mere caricature, then, she is intended to embody a powerfully Lawrentian creative-destructive paradox. “Necropolitan Nicola” (467) is clever but blighted by a dark secret; she is shamefully addicted to sodomy. Although lacking the “elemental feminine power [of] propagation”, according to Jay McInerney, she is “the real creative genius behind the novel” and James Diedrick regards her as an “authorial alter ego.”[7] But as all Nicola’s ingenuity is directed at arranging her own murder, it is difficult to see her as anything more than another female victim, asking for it. Guy is more straightforward. He is “a good guy” (27), who is described as having an “archaic heart” (192) and being like an Evelyn Waugh hero (282): there is no pretence that he is in any way original. Indeed, Amis seems to think that having the narrator point out to the reader that his characters are clichés lets him off the hook. Guy seems in many ways a version of Tietjens in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End; a gentlemanly, decent chap whose demise was memorialised by Ford nearly seventy years ago. There hardly seems much point in resurrecting him just to have the pleasure of burying him all over again. Sam, concerned for innocent, gullible Guy, asks Nicola: “Do you need Guy? Couldn’t you just edit him out?” (119). For different reasons, readers might ask Amis the same question.

<7> If Guy is archaic, Keith Talent is “modern, modern, modern” (10). So, something new here then? According to David Lodge, Talent is created with “Dickensian glee” and Julian Symons refers to Amis’s Dickensian caricatures “that have their own gigantic reality.”[8] If not so very, very, very modern, at least big. But the dart-throwing, beer-swilling Keith -- who constantly says “innit” and “onna TV” to signal how plebeian he is -- is not so much larger than life as little more than a collection of patronising clichés and cheap jibes: “of humble extraction -- the son of a simple criminal” (385). Amis may be using exaggeration to point up “the culturally constructed nature of what we conventionally think of as psychological and social reality”[9] and critics may regard Keith as “the typical product of what Baudrillard has called the age of simulation [in which] it is no longer possible to distinguish between the image as representation of a reality outside it and the simulacrum.”[10] But it is not only the working-class who are influenced by the popular media: why doesn’t Amis make the middle-class characters the product of a set of equally reductive cultural codes? It is one thing to create characters who are self-consciously fictional (like Nicola and Sam) but quite another to create a character constructed of clichés who is entirely unaware of the fact. If Keith is meant to be a typical working-class “yob,” perhaps it is Amis who cannot distinguish between reality and what he sees “onna TV”.

<8> Amis’s postmodernist pose cannot conceal the fact that his characters are flat because he has no depth to give them. He has only two emotional registers at his disposal: the cynical and the syrupy; anything sincere is beyond his novelistic reach. Although Nicola and Sam are intended to transcend this “thesaurus of miserable clichés” (207) readers may feel that despite all the topspin they do not actually make it. The dying writer, engaged in a race against time, is not wonderfully original and Nicola’s insistence that she knows she is a “male fantasy figure” (260) does not stop her being one. As for the setting of London Fields, it is no more credible that the characters. For Sam, returning from New York, London is “Somnopolis. It reeked of it, and of insomniac worry and disquiet, and thwarted escape” (2). As the US is the happening country, one assumes that he has come to England as a suitable place to die.

<9> According to the narrator, the streets of London are choked with traffic and the people are stifled by anachronistic ideas about class:

Class! Yes, it’s still here. Terrific staying power, and against all the historical odds. What is it with that old, old crap? The class system just doesn’t know when to call it a day. Even a nuclear holocaust, I think, would fail to make that much of a dent in it. Crawling through the iodized shithouse that used to be England, people would still be brooding about accents and cocked pinkies, about maiden names and settee or sofa, about the proper way to each a roach in society. Come on. Do you take the head off first, or start with the legs? (24)

Fresh from the classless society where, even if there is massive inequality and social deprivation on a colossal scale, nobody worries about your pronunciation, Sam seems to imagine that class is a matter of accents rather than economics. But in 1989,“cocked pinkies” are a bit of a red herring. Unfortunately, this is not intended as an example of Sam’s naivety; even in his most recent collection of stories Amis writes about social equality as if it were a matter of ripping up the etiquette book. So, despite being successful, the working-class bouncer in “State of England” still feels inferior: “Big Mal, who grunted with a kind of assent when he saw a swung fist coming for his mouth, could nonetheless be laid out by the sight of a cocked pinkie. A! Always it was with him, every hour, like an illness, like a haunting .... Why else d’you think he’d loved the States so much?”[11]

<10> The narrator’s incredulous scoffing at the survival of the English class system is particularly ironic when one considers the outdated, rigid, class assumptions which underlie the creation of Amis’s characters. Do gentlemanly Guys, with private incomes and cultured tastes, still exist? If there are a few of them still floating around, does it really matter? What kind of prejudices result in a lowerclass “foil” who is ignorant, stupid, drunken and violent? To pit the chinless toff against the cockney villain really does seem like “old, old, crap” (24).

<11> For Amis, the working class is so much cartoon fodder. Trish Shirt, for example, is both pathetic and ridiculous as she complains about Keith to Guy:

“He comes round my owce. Eel ... bring me booze and that. To my owce. And use me like a toilet.” “Oh I’m sure not,” said Guy, reflecting that even the word owce was an exalted epithet for where Trish lived... “Keep meself up like a titmag. In my owce. Case he wants to come round and lam the yell out of me.” (381)

Having set up Trish as the comic butt, Amis then tries to wring a little pathos out of her “abject devotion” to Keith as she declares, with sudden fluency: “Oh I love him dearly with all my heart .... Truly I do.” But it is impossible to feel sympathy because Amis has reduced Trish to a titmag pin-up with a speech bubble: “In my oh nous”. Not even Guy’s compassion extends that far: “To attempt so little in the way of speech, of response, of expression: and then to fuck that up” (381).

<12> The only working-class figure who is neither moronically stupid nor vicious is Kath. But although Keith’s Irish wife is not a caricature, she never manages to be more than a bundle of contradictions. In most of her scenes she is the battered wife and downtrodden mother, dragging herself round a cartoon council flat: “The pram dominated the hallway. The pram was the hallway, and more. Its handles stuck into the kitchen, its fluted bonnet took up half the lounge” (105). But Kath is no Trish Shirt. Educated and intelligent, she researches the Crisis at the library and tries to discuss her alarms with the uncomprehending Keith. Although she was the one who taught Keith to read and is clearly more intelligent, Kath persists in regarding him “as if he were a wonderful doctor, as if he were a wonderful priest” (266). Even if she is meant to be blinded by love (or some such banality), Kath does not add up. It could be argued that this makes her an example of the fragmented, discontinuous, postmodern self but it seems much more like uncertain characterisation. Consequently, it is difficult to care when it is revealed that she, not Keith, has been using the baby as an ashtray. Kath’s function in the novel is too obviously intended to illustrate “that self-hatred is more or less forced on one in conditions like these” (266); that abuse is passed down the line and inflicted on the weakest.

<13> Working-class women in London Fields tend to be victims, even if it is difficult to feel much sympathy for them. The full-frontal attack on the working class is effected through Keith Talent. When it comes to exposing Talent’s supposedly proletarian foibles, nothing is too much trouble. We get, for example, a detailed and derisive account of his accent:

The t’s are viciously stressed. A brief guttural pop, like the first nanosecond of a cough or a hawk, accompanies the hard k. When he says chaotic, and he says it frequently, it sounds like a death rattle. ‘Month’ comes out as mumf. He sometimes says, ‘I’m feory ...’when he speaks theoretically. ‘There’ sounds like dare or lair. You could often run away with the impression that Keith Talent is eighteen months old. (26)

“Pinkies cocked” while writing this presumably.

<14> No beer-swilling, darts-throwing, working-class stereotype would be complete without the obligatory arse-scalding curries. There are two in London Fields. The first takes place in The Indian Mutiny, where Keith demolishes mutton vindaloo with “napalm sauce” before declaring it “Bland. Dead Bland.” The intention seems to be to poke fun at Keith’s macho posturing, but the references to the staff tend to make them equally, though probably unintentionally, ridiculous. They are described as “fondly preparing” the food; “busy responding to Keith’s imperial challenge”; their “silent faces stared through the serving-hatch” while his eating prowess “drew excited murmurs” (56). The effect of this is to render the staff subservient and eager-to-please, although it is much more likely that they would either be laughing up their sleeves or bored by the whole business. The second meal is a variation on the first: “three additional waiters and two smocked cooks stood and watched, murmuring eagerly amongst themselves” but Keith keeps chewing and “asks Akhbar to correct him if he was wrong but didn’t he ask him for the hot one?” (198) When Keith is taken to “illustrious old-style restaurants” by Nicola, on the other hand, he feels hopelessly and humiliatingly out of place. Although he calls the Indian waiters by their first names, “the lightest glance of the maitre d’ could harrow up his soul”. Nicola supposes that “this explained the proletarian predilection for Indian food -- and Indian waiters. Who’s afraid of those brown-faced elfs?” (421) It is difficult to decide who is being patronised the most: the white working-class or the Indian waiters. It’s a toss-up, innit.

<15> But the most pernicious aspect of Amis’s representation of “the man of the British people” (132), is the way Keith is used as a vehicle for racist attitudes: “In the part of West London that Keith called home, racketeering meant fighting about drugs with black people -- and black people are better at fighting than white people, because, among other reasons, they all do it (there aren’t any civilians)” (5). The novel is deeply hypocritical: Amis hides behind his narrator, who in turn hides behind Keith, who is made to spout racist babble about “our coloured brethren.” Amis seems to enjoy hiding behind his ventriloquist’s dummy and getting him to make comments that neither he nor his educated narrator could get away with. So, against all the odds, it turns out that Keith is quite the West London flâneur, drawing curious sociological conclusions from his observations of the streets.

Spend [ing] a lot of time in the street cafes of Golborne Road, Keith grew preoccupied by a certain enigma. The enigma was this. How come you often saw black guys with white girls (always blondes, always, presumably for maximum contrast-gain), and never saw white guys with black girls? Did the black guys beat up the white guys who went out with black girls? No, or not much; you had to be discreet, though, and in his experience lasting relationships were rarely formed. Then how was it done? It came to him in a flash of inspiration. The black guys beat up the black girls who went out with white guys! (5)

As Keith’s enigmas rarely stretch further than how to shag the nearest woman or win the next darts match, it is a little surprising to find him pondering the longevity or otherwise of “mixed” relationships. Nothing would lead us to think he gave a toss whether a “relationship” lasted or not.

<16> The, initially incredible, impression that Keith is actually used as a mouthpiece for Amis’s unpalatable prejudices, is reinforced later in the novel as Talent envies Thelonius, the black pimp. Dripping with gold jewellery and dressed in a fur coat, Thelonius leaves The Black Cross with his lightly bronzed, blonde girlfriend. As so often, an encounter with “our coloured brethren” inspires Keith to “feorize”:

The spade lifestyle, though, .... made a lot of good sense. Especially the way they dealt with their birds. When they took out their wallets and showed you their photos: after the blondes, after all the Pointer Sisters and Marvellettes and Supremes, there’d be one black bird with buck teeth and young eyes. And you’d say, “That your cousin or something then, Wes?” And they’d shake their heads (they took your point) and say: “Babymama.” You see, that was the bird they had babies with, or at least gave babies to. Thelonius has four or five kids in a basement in Leamington Road Villas. Only go round there once a fortnight, on Giro day. Then you’re back in the pub with the blonde and the child benefit. Now even the flashiest white bloke didn’t seem able to swing that. If Keith had been inclined to think in Darwinian terms, he might have said to himself that the additional blondes were pure gravy for the brothers, because they kept the black bird-pool high. (171)

But since Keith shows no sign of ever having heard of Darwin, we might start to wonder whose thoughts these are and why they are included. When Sam subsequently describes excessive burglary in “Darwinian terms” (248) the reader’s suspicions are increased. Are we to conclude that Amis considers this discussion of the “spade lifestyle” interesting and valid in its own right? If so, the death of Darwinism cannot come quickly enough.

<17> It might be argued that there is a cordon sanitaire between Sam and Talent, except that Sam seems to have the same prejudices as Keith, only less crudely expressed:

One of the black guys -- he called himself Shakepeare -- was staring at me with either affection or contempt. Shakespeare is, by some distance, the least prosperous of the Black Cross brothers. The bum’s overcaot, the plastic shoes, the never-washed dreadlocks. He’s the local shaman: he has a religious mission. His hair looks like an onion bhaji. “You trying to cut down, man?” he slowly asked me. Actually I had to make him say it about five times before I understood. (40-41)

In London Fields a black man in a West London pub has got to be a drug dealer, stoned out of his mind, talking in an impenetrable patois. It is inconceivable to Amis that he could be anything else, though he could equally well be a doctor or a plumber. Of course, to complain that Amis’s caricature is racist is missing the humour: the hilarious description of dreadlocks, “like an onion bhaji,” not to mention the comic incongruity of a black bum naming himself after the immortal bard. It is almost as funny as Guy’s Spanish maid being called Auxiliadora: tee-hee-hee. Satire, of course, depends on comic grotesques but the objects of satire should deserve the ridicule dished out to them.

<18> Nor can it be argued that Sam and Talent do not speak for Amis: if he had wanted to, Amis could easily have included black characters who disprove the prejudices articulated in the novel, but no other perspective is offered. According to Sam, there is “little bigotry” in Keith’s claim that “when it came to work, your average bongo’ll be as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike” (246) and Amis actually endorses this view by having Thelonius botch everything about the attempted burglary from beginning to end. There is never any attempt to represent Thelonius, Shakespeare or Norvis’s point of view. Indeed, they hardly ever speak (being far too stoned). Given the risible dialogue between Norvis and Guy about Keith’s sexual conquests, this is probably just as well:

“I don’t know how he does be doing it,” said Norvis.... “He here, he there. He everywhere.” “Yes,” said Guy. “No one approach he for energy. No one have he staying power.... It beat me how he does be doing it.” (337)

One can only wonder: is Norvis meant to be from Notting Hill or the Aran Islands? Keith’s view of black men is not only unchallenged, it is underlined. When even Keith -- rapist and wife-beater -- thinks the brothers “didn’t half treat birds horrible” (172), then those guys really must be mean. There are no speaking black female characters in the novel which, given the references to “babymamas” and Keith’s “strange-hued women” (4), is probably a mercy.

<19> Without exception, every black male character in the novel is associated with drugs, violence, crime, or sex and often a combination of all four. Shakespeare, for example, is “routinely speechless on drugs and drink” and has spent long periods in prison for rape (168). Thelonius “breaks the law the entire time” (208) and has a string of white women. When Keith plays a darts match in Brixton, his black opponent appears to be admired for his discipline and a certain suavity but only in a way that denies him any humanity. He is, in effect, a giant prick:

[He] was very young and very black, and strikingly combined the qualities of violence and solemnity, the face perfect and polished, and the shaved head holding a tint of violet, like an impeccable penis, impeccably erect. (151)

The Brixton match, inevitably, begins with a stabbing and would have ended with one too if Guy (whose father was a brigadier) had not advanced towards “the blackness of the human line” and intimidated everybody by saying “Don’t be a tit” when “the black boy ran at him” (153). The “black crew” are not just hostile and aggressive, they are easily scared. In response to the “unanswerably clear ring” of Guy’s posh voice they all give in: pinkies cocked, he parts the black sea.

<20> When they are not being violent or sex-crazed, the black characters provide the narrator with the occasion for one of those comic routines for which Amis is celebrated. So Thelonius has “exponential bad taste, a kind of anti-taste”:

His pimpsuits, pimphats and pimpshoes are made out of bison and turtles, zebras and reindeer. Among the stolen goods in the pimpboot of his pimpcar are more pimpclothes, swathed in pimppolythene. Every other day, as the pimpwhim takes him, his pimphair is either superfrizzed or expensively relaxed. His pimpfingers are dusted with pimprings. Boy, does Thelonius look a pimp. (208)

For some reason, Amis seems to think that the repetition, ad nauseum, of an insulting adjective, is amusing. In preference to giving Thelonius any kind of motivation or past or social context, he is simply flattened out into a cartoon.

<21> A similar use of repetition occurs in connection with Keith, for similar reasons. At one point, the narrator begins to consider Keith’s childhood but decides that doing so might give his anti-hero some humanity:

But we mustn’t go too far back, must we, we mustn’t go too far back in anybody’s life. Particularly when they’re poor. Because if we do, if we go too far back -- and this would be a journey made in a terrible bus, with terrible smells and terrible noises, with terrible waits and terrible jolts, a journey made in terrible weather for terrible reasons and for terrible purposes, in terrible cold or terrible heat, with terrible stops for terrible snacks, down terrible roads to a terrible room -- then nobody is to blame for anything, and nothing matters, and everything is allowed. (180)

Stop or I’ll bust out crying. Instead of imagining a past for Keith, with fully realised, particular circumstances, there is only a vaguely conjured “journey.” In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene roots around in the cruelty and squalor of Roedean Bottom to find the origins of Pinkie’s violence but Amis merely makes a sentimental gesture towards a generic, unhappy childhood. Nor is it at all clear why recognising the effects of childhood poverty and abuse would lead to moral nihilism in the way that he suggests. Perhaps, after all, it is as well that the narrator doesn’t go down this road: the reference to “terrible snacks” hardly inspires confidence in Sam’s understanding of deprivation. How traumatic can it be to eat a few pork pies?

<22> In these passages, then, we have Amis’s two registers: the (pimp) cynical and the (terrible) syrupy. The former is not funny and the latter is not moving. Together, they combine to deny the black and working-class characters any humanity. Instead, white middle-class readers are invited to feel superior and to ridicule anyone who is in any way unlike themselves. Amis throws in a toff (for the middle class has always enjoyed looking down on its social betters, as Jane Austen’s novels show) but Guy is so hopelessly anachronistic that this hardly counts as social satire. And if Guy is a stereotype, he is at least an inoffensive one. Nicola and Sam, being educated and middle class, are not intended to be caricatures; at the very least they are aware that their characters are constructed. Amis even invites the reader to care about them; to see their deaths as tragic (see below). In contrast, the cartoon exaggerations of Keith, Trish Shirt, Thelonius and Shakespeare serve to confirm all the worst prejudices of Amis’s readers; in their case, the reader is allowed to sit back, laugh and feel superior. The fact that there has been so little criticism of Amis’s snobbery and racism proves the point.[12]

<23> But perhaps the greatest irony of London Fields is that on a conscious level Amis is doubtless on the side of the underdog. In Experience, Amis reports that his father considered him to be “a dutiful plaything of multicultural correctness” and “a trend-crazed bleeding heart” (which only serves to suggest how completely Kingsley Amis misunderstood multiculturalism).[13] In the abstract, Amis comes across as a social democrat: London Fields is a fable of riches and poverty: baby Marmaduke, Guy’s heir, is a monster of selfishness and violence; Kim, the child of the council estates, is innocent, beautiful, precociously gifted -- and highly reminiscent of Effie in Silas Marner.

<24> The trouble seems to be that despite his leftish leanings, Amis cannot quite conceive of a working-class character in fully human terms. With Kim, he is relatively safe because she is a baby; she has not yet acquired a common accent or a low taste for pork pies. And he can cast Sam as her saviour in a grand drama of deliverance for them both: “I carried the child through the streets....Life! Like the warm life in my arms” (454). This is no cartoon, no parody; the reader is being asked to care. In terms of the fable, Kim is perhaps intended as a symbol of hope; she represents the possibility of a fairer future, with some of Guy’s wealth redistributed in her direction. Amis waves his magic wand and Cinderella shall go to the ball! As political “feory,” this really is terrible. Nor can Amis resist ending on a note of pure Tate and Lyle, as Sam addresses his last lines to Kim:

So if you ever felt something behind you, when you weren’t even one, like welcome heat, like a bulb, like a sun, trying to shine right across the universe -- it was me. Always me. It was me. It was me. (470)

And if the reader ever felt something behind the narrator, directing the puppets and determining the plot, while pretending not to -- it was Amis. Always Amis. It was Amis.

<25> The excessive reliance on caricature means that the big, metropolitan project that Amis seems to aim for in London Fields is fatally undermined. There is no panoramic survey of London society; on the contrary, the angle of vision is narrow and blinkered; the city rendered flat and uninteresting; its inhabitants tediously stereotypical. There is no sense of London as a place teeming with different stories or of lives that are complex and ambiguous or surprising. Amis has contrasted the moribund English novel with the energy and scope of American fiction produced by writers such as Roth, Bellow and DeLillo. It is, perhaps, to save London Fields from the provincialism that is said to blight English fiction, that he imports a supposedly American narrator. Yet what Amis produces is the worst kind of English provincialism: insular, judgmental and smug. The novel is doubtless meant to provide a satire of London’s class system and a warning about ecological disaster but the analysis of class is out of date and if London were really as dreary as it seems in London Fields then we might as well have the apocalypse now.


[1] Brian Finney, “Narrative and Narrated Homicides in Martin Amis’s Other People and London Fields” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 1995 (Fall), vol. 37, 9. An extract from this essay is reprinted in The Fiction of Martin Amis: A reader’s guide to essential criticism, ed., Nicolas Tredell (Cambridge: Icon Books, 2000). [^]

[2] “The Death of the Author as Cultural Critique in London Fields,” in Powerless Fictions? Ethics, Cultural Critique, and American Fiction in the Age of Postmodernism, ed., Ricardo Miguel Alfonso (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996), 53. Reprinted in Tredell, The Fiction of Martin Amis, 111. [^]

[3] It was widely believed that the reason London Fields did not make the Booker shortlist was because two women on the panel objected to Amis’s sexism. For a discussion of the Booker controversy see The Fiction of Martin Amis, 97-100. See also Sara Mills, “Working with Sexism: What Can Feminist Text Analysis Do?” in Twentieth-Century Fiction: From Text to Context (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 206-219. [^]

[4] “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (1975) amended 1987 and reprinted in Heart of Darkness, ed., Robert Kimbrough (New York and London: Norton 1988), 251-262. [^]

[5] All references are to the Penguin edition (1990). Page numbers appear in parenthesis in the text. [^]

[6] Mark Imlah seems to have been the first to point this out in “A Dart in the Heart,” review of London Fields, Times Literary Supplement (29.9.89), 1051. [^]

[7] Understanding Martin Amis (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), 148. [^]

[8] Reviews quoted on the back cover of the Penguin edition. [^]

[9] Holmes, 55. [^]

[10] Finney, 11. [^]

[11] Martin Amis, Heavy Water (London: Vintage, 1999), 38. [^]

[12] I have found only one reference, two sentences in Frederick Holmes’s “The Death of the Author as Cultural Critique”, which come after an extensive discussion of whether Amis can be considered sexist: “One could accuse him in a similarly hesitant way of racism or of class prejudice, owing to the presence in the novel of black, working class, and upper class characters who conform to derogatory stereotypes. ... if Amis does not seem directly to endorse such oppressive categorizing, he seems unwilling or unable to privilege as authoritative any other discourses, including those which could contest it.” (60) [^]

[13] Martin Amis, Experience (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000). [^]