This is a black hole of a novel. Dark matter for sure. Even the humour, of which there is aplenty, is of the dark variety. All the basest human instincts are on show here; lies, deceit, betrayal, violence, and ultimately murder. Yet every now and then some light shines through and when it does the whole bleak world that Amis so brilliantly creates comes to vibrant life. He's a clever fellow is our Mr Amis. Damn clever. Too clever in many ways, or at least too truthful. Who wants to see the human condition revealed in such harsh tones? Even we Marxists have our limits. But Amis just doesn't care. He lays it all out without the slightest consideration for human sensibilities. He offers us his dark insights on everything from pornography, masturbation and death. And when I say death I don't just mean a paltry little individual death. No, Amis has a much bigger canvass. He's meddling with the death of everything; of love, of literature, of the planet, of God, of science, and of the universe itself. I found myself hating and loving this novel in equal measure and I'm sure Amis would me more than happy with that state of affairs.

 

And for Amis, the universe is always in crisis. The looming sense of impending meltdown permeates everything. Of course we have it today with the never-ending threat of economic collapse, the imposition of a medieval global caliphate and an environmental Armageddon. For Amis it was a millennial thing accompanied by a nuclear wipe-out. Same difference. Everything ends. Happy days all round. I love all this existential gloomy stuff, though I doubt if it is something particular to modern man. I'm certain it's been around since the dawn of man himself. It's the downside of consciousness. It's the cross we have to bear. And no one does this existential crisis stuff better than Amis. The man has made a living out of it. And despite his recent gratuitous, mean-spirited and wholly unfounded attack on the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, I suspect our Mr Amis might just be a good bloke to have a beer with - notwithstanding his arrogant Oxbridge persona.

So what were the exceptionally good bits in London Fields? Well the fact that it took place almost entirely in West London made me feel particularly at home. West London hasn't had such a good promo since the heady days of The Clash. Try this for a sense of how Amis blends the local with the universal;

'Really the thing about life here was its incredible rapidity, with people growing up and getting old in the space of a single week. Like the planet in the twentieth century, with its fantastic coup de vieux. Here in the Black Cross, time was like a tube train with the driver slumped heavy over the lever, flashing through station after station. Guy always thought it was life he was looking for. But it must have been death  or awareness of death. Death candour. I have found it, he thought. It is mean, it is serious, it is beautiful, it is poor; it fully earns every compliment, every adjective, you care to name.' P36

And so Amis sets the scene for what is to follow. A dance with the existential void. A dance that none of us can ever truly avoid no matter what diversions we treat ourselves with.

It might all be about to end, for individuals and humanity alike, but Amis is not about to forget the class contours of our happy little civilisation. And if you want class what better place to look than dear old London Town. Class permeates London Fields but Amis doesn't need to lecture. He gets it out the way right at the beginning and then he lets the characters and the interlocking plots do the rest. But it's there throughout, always pressing down on the reader, informing every twist and turn.

'Keith acted in the name of masculinity. He acted also, of course, in the name of 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 eat a roach in society. Come on. Do you take the head off first, or start with the legs?' P24

There you have it. Humour and holocaust all in the same paragraph. I take my hat off to Mr Amis, he really is a novelist for our times. Some novels date quickly, others date over the decades but a few have a timeless universality. They mature and settle down like a good wine. I suspect London Fields might just fall into the latter category. Take for example Amis' musing on cheating. As each year passes his musings become more apposite. The Volkswagon corporation is a testament to this. 

'Keith pondered the whole future of cheating. Cheating was his life. Cheating was all he knew. Few people had much money any more but it was quite clear they had never been stupider. The old desire for a bargain had survived into a world where there weren't any; there weren't any bargains. Unquestionably you could still earn a decent living at it, at cheating. Yet no one seemed to have thought through the implications of a world in which everyone cheated.. Everyone was cheating  because everyone was cheating.' P113

Does London Fields have overarching theme? For me it does and if I had to sum it up in one word I would name it Entropy. Amis uses this term himself and I think it hits the preverbal nail on the head. Who can argue with entropy when it is busy doing its thing every damn day and every damn place. Amis puts it like this:

'We're all in this together now. As is the case with the world situation, something will have to give, and give soon. It will all get a lot woollier, messier. Everything is winding down, me, this, mother earth. More: the universe, though apparently roomy enough, is heading for heat death. I hope there are parallel universes. I hope alternatives exist. Who stitched us up with all these design flaws? Entropy, time's arrow ravenous disorder. The designer universe: but it was meant to give out all along, like something you pick up at GoodFlicks. So maybe the universe is a dog, a pup, a dud, slipped our way by the Cheat.'P239

If Entropy is not to your liking then perhaps a more cheerful Mother Earth will do the job. Either way, with London Fields, we are reading an essay on the nature of terminal decline  the end result perhaps of too much cheating all round. As I re-read passages from this novel I am more convinced than ever that this is one of the key novels for our troubled times. It should be repackaged and re-released and made compulsorily reading for every eighteen year old. I believe there is a film version on the way. A perfect marketing opportunity. Amis himself would make the perfect narrator - troubled, cynical and most importantly, dying. And on the subject of dying, I'll let Amis have the last word;

Imagine the terrestrial timespan as an outstretched arm: a single swipe of an emery board, across the nail of the third finger, erases human history. We haven't been around for very long. And we've turned the earth's hair white. She seemed to have eternal youth but now she's ageing awful fast, like an addict, like a waxless candle. Jesus, have you seen her recently? We used to live and die without any sense of the planet getting older, of mother earth getting older, living and dying. We used to live outside history. But now we are all coterminous. We're inside history now all right, on its leading edge, with the wind ripping past our ears. Hard to love when you're bracing yourself for impact. And maybe love can't bear it either, and flees all planets when they reach this conclusion, when they get to the end of their twentieth century. P197

Is there anyone around in the English novel writing game that can do better than that? I think not.

End JPK Copyright 3/11/15

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 20 May 2018 17:16 )