Time takes from us with two hands.
A street thug, a femme fatale, and a feckless member of the landed gentry meet by happenstance at a downscale London pub. It sounds like the setup to a joke, and in a sense it is.
The diabolical chain of events that follow, which comprise Martin Amis’s finest novel London Fields, are frightening, funny, and prescient. It is a trickily plotted murder mystery, a meditation on death and self-delusion, and a portrait of an empire in slow and inexorable decline. In the 30 years since Amis published London Fields, the world has been radically transformed by technological innovation and the terror and promise of the electronic age. And so it is strange, in a sense, that the United Kingdom as portrayed in London Fields seems exactly the same. The investor class and the working poor have never been further apart, racial and class divisions never easier to exploit, the media landscape never more distorting and alienating. If the prismatic clusterfuck of Brexit struck English outsiders as a cold shock, London Fields is a retrospective corrective to that narrative and a prophetic snapshot of the divided West in its current fractious moment.
For Amis, the scion of the wickedly funny and sometimes reprehensible British literary titan Kingsley Amis, London Fields is a best-case-scenario novel—a vehicle for an author uniquely qualified to report with one foot in the door and the other foot in the gutter. Like his father before him, it is safe to say the younger Amis knew both pubs and privilege. A lacerating satirist who, in certain works, can visit an almost uncomfortable degree of sadism on his characters, Amis is at his most humane in rendering London Fields’ three major players, which is not the same as saying their sundry destinies aren’t uniquely cruel.
Indeed, the capacity for human cruelty and the expression of self-inflicted violence at a micro and macro scale is the novel’s great theme. In another timely gambit, London Fields is set against the backdrop of a mysterious but imminent ecocatastrophe, and the terrifying potential consequences create a painful irony against the intimate gyrations and machinations of Keith Talent, Guy Clinch, and Nicola Six. At the Black Cross pub, Nicola Six has met the man she hopes will murder her. It’s a good plan, but Earth is running out of time. Did I mention that London Fields is a comedy?
Darts is what the Brits do best in the afterglow of empire.
The crucial thing to know about Keith Talent—pub champion of the Black Cross, low-level criminal, and aspiring professional dartsman—is that he is truly a man of the people. But Keith isn’t above cheating the people, which is how he makes his living. He simply doesn’t put on airs in the process. Whatever combination of petty theft, home invasion, loan-sharking, fencing of counterfeit goods, and gypsy cab extortions he relies upon to drum up income is accomplished with the humble persistence of a simple lad doing what needs to be done in a dog-eat-dog world. This, anyway, is how Keith Talent views himself.
So, Keith is not an exemplar of self-awareness. A low-functioning heel with strangely high charisma, he is London Fields’ id, objectionable in the extreme, but also exhaustingly likable within the frame of his comedic foibles. He has other problems besides his revolving-door relationship with jail and law enforcement: He is a sex addict, an alcoholic, and a married father who tends to forget he is married. Keith is stuck in a functional caste system with a fourth-grade education, but he is also movingly aspirational. He knows he is poor. But he watches wealthy people on TV and, by some complicated bit of psychic transference, convinces himself that he too might enjoy the too-sweet nectar of posh privilege … if he can get on TV. He slowly but surely makes his way through a citywide darts tournament (this requires some cheating), the finals of which are broadcast over the air.
As an anticipation of the ever-escalating, never-ending nightmare of the-rich-and-poor divide as played out on contemporary social media, Keith’s resentments are understandable and perhaps even galvanizing. He knows enough to know that those born of noble stature will never regard him as human. He feels the heat of disrespect acutely and often. When Guy Clinch walks into the Black Cross, Keith Talent immediately intuits the charged frequency of the smoke-filled air, which is changed by the obvious and anomalous fact of Guy’s wealth and access. When the lines of class are crossed, like unexploded munitions or electrified wires, the potential for danger is tangible and immediate.
The murderer was not always the murderer, but the murderee was always the murderee.
When Nicola Six walks into the Black Cross, on the other hand, Keith Talent immediately identifies her as a prospective addition to his ceaselessly spinning sexual roulette wheel. In this apprehension, Keith Talent is both right and wrong. Unlike his countless relatively low-stress assignations in London’s tenements and brothels, it might happen with Nicola, but it won’t be without additional complications. It’s all in how far he’s prepared to go and what he’s prepared to do. Keith Talent is a bad man, but he has limits, too.
Nicola Six—breathtaking, exhausted, exquisitely cultured, sexually ingenious—has been the psychological undoing of too many lords and barons and sheiks and captains of industry to ever be fully counted. And now, for reasons only hinted at, she has decided to call game on her glamorous life and be murdered. If you think you can’t just make anyone murder you, well then you just aren’t using your imagination. No character in literature this side of Macbeth is better at getting murdered than Nicola Six.
Nicola’s closest literary cousin is Phyllis Nirdlinger, the self-annihilating agent of chaos in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, whose signature commingling of sex and slaughter similarly represent the polarities of Nicola’s preoccupations. In both instances, we do not know how these women arrived at this space, and in both, we have few leads to go on. But we have an inkling. At a certain juncture, at an impressionable age, you may treat yourself as others have treated you. And if something were allowed to happen—say you were in danger and no one protected you—then total revenge is all that’s left.
Guy Clinch had everything. In fact he had two of everything.
Relative to Keith Talent, Guy Clinch is a good man, and while that is a very low bar, it counts for something in a world where cheating others in some form or fashion is increasingly the vocation of choice for wealthy and poor alike. Guy is not a cheat, but he is importuned. Things are not going well in his personal life, and this is what causes him to screw up his courage and enter the Black Cross, where very soon things will start getting incalculably worse. In briefly indulging his desire to live like common people, he has provided access to the otherwise impregnable ramparts of his social standing, and the assault forms immediately. Outside of the Black Cross, Guy possesses material resources to deal with any problem. Inside the hellish socioeconomic labyrinth of the Black Cross he is utterly helpless— helpless like a rich man’s child.
Guy is a wealthy heir—tall, well mannered and irritatingly handsome—with a key role in the family business. He doesn’t know exactly what the family business does anymore—at some point finance is just an abstraction—but he accepts his role just the same. The nagging issues that compelled him into the Black Cross in the first place are understandable enough: a wife who doesn’t love or maybe even like him, and a monstrous infant named Marmaduke who reigns over their lives with the temperament of violent dictator (in a story that contains significant violence, it is a tribute to Amis that 10-month-old Marmaduke is by far its most overtly frightening character).
Within the framework of London Fields’ escalating contest of skulduggery, Guy is almost pathetically overmatched, a glaring target for con artists, career criminals, single-minded sociopaths, and a femme fatale so acute in her capacity to generate desperation in men that it is almost a cause to feel sorry for Guy. But not quite.
Anyway, in one regard, Guy really has the jump. A genuine aristocrat with huge financial resources, he has access to the actual truth. The Americans are halting immigration. The major markets are no longer trading. The problem is worse than we thought. Horrorday.
This was the fifth of November. This was Horrorday.
Governments won’t admit it and newspapers won’t report on it and those unaffected live in a hardened, even acrimonious state of denial. And yet, in truth, everyone can tell: The Earth is sick. In distant places it is throwing up its oceans and growing tumors on its land masses. Long predicted, the mass shortages and the attendant wars have begun in earnest. First-world countries labor to limit the mayhem to third- and fourth-world countries. In America, the Pentagon hopes that limited war will help to stem the shortages: “Cathartic war” is their chosen term of art. They know there will be something else new, another coinage: “superwar.” Even in London and New York, far from the carnage, deep down, people know something’s off. The sun is too close. The weather is too strange. The Earth is really dying.
On August 22, 1914, in the Battle of the Frontiers, 27,000 French men died in one day of fighting. How’s that for efficiency? How’s that for technological advance? And the atomic bomb: 150,000 evaporated. The events of Horrorday will make all of this look like small beer. The pain will be so acute and the deprivations so real that benign modes of death will be the most searched for topic by the living. Cruelty and despair in metric tons. Borders sewn shut. Hordes of needy turned away. This is the passion play London Fields is dress rehearsing. And London Fields is a comedy. The real thing won’t be remotely funny.
There are one or two things left to write.
Like any good mystery writer, Amis threads plenty of red herrings and startling surprises and diabolical misdirections throughout London Fields. Like any serial withholder, he dangles the keys to the mystery straight down to the bitter end. And for the major players, the end is bitter indeed.
And then there is this: a final mystery ultimately more consequential than the collective fates of dumb Keith Talent and dense Guy Clinch and doomed Nicola Six. There is the mystery of innocence. Two different infants figure prominently in London Fields. There is Marmaduke, a scientific study in untrammeled malevolence who makes it impossible to employ a nanny for more than a week without the threat of litigation. And then there is Kim, the spawn of Keith Talent who is temperamentally wondrous—a loving and engaging girl who does not have—at least not yet—the context for the misery she is being raised in.
Amis is having fun here—the heel has the golden child, the hero has the golem—but in truth, both creations are remarkable. They are life forces that must be protected at any cost. If London Fields is facially an indictment of an old world (one maybe not worth saving), it is also a subtle prayer for those still born into it. The next Brexit vote is December 12.
Did I mention London Fields is a tragedy?
Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.