I have at last reached the end of Audible’s unabridged version of Martin Amis’s London Fields. What an enormous relief.
I resorted to Audible because I have never been able to persist with any of Amis’s novels in their on the page manifestations but was convinced that I ought to have at least one of them under my belt. For most of my adult life, after all, I have been under the misapprehension that Amis is a giant of our culture and one of the late 20th century’s truly gifted writers. Thus, my lack of persistence has seemed to me to be a shameful failure which has left a great gaping void in my cultural experience.
I have filled that void now; I have made my way to the end of the unabridged text of one of Amis’s novels. In the process, I had hoped to become a member of the Amis fan club. I believed that the result of my hours of listening would be that I'd turn into an Amis admirer, able to share the enthusiasm that so many others feel for the great man.
Sadly, things didn't work out that way.
I do of course recognise that Keith Talent is, in theory, a hilarious creation - in the mould, perhaps, of Toby Belch or Falstaff or - well someone. And Marmaduke is too - despite the fact that each time his name rang out from the narrator's mouth all I could think was, “Oh for pity’s sake, not another hyper-exaggeration in prose form of dressing or doing other day-to-day things with a small child; flipping hell, we get it, Martin, get rid of that trowel you’re ladling it all on with, please"
To put it another way, while recognising that each and every character in the novel is a richly comic creation, I was distracted by a nagging question - aren’t things that are richly comic supposed to raise at least the occasional laugh?
Because, you see, for me nothing did.
Really, I mean it.
Or, to adopt for a moment the tiresome approach to prose chosen by Mr Amis, let me spell it out longhand: in the laughter stakes the book achieved a result of exactly zero, so far as I was concerned. That’s the big O I’m talking about. Yes, precisely nil on the scoreboard in the game of mirth provocation. Nada; niente; nichevo; totally, utterly, completely zilch. Not one solitary, damn, miserable, infinitesimal trace of a faint guffaw; not a skerrick; not a sausage. The novel turned out, so far as I was concerned, to be an absolutely, undeniably, appallingly, unspeakably and tiresomely giggle free zone.
Possibly the repetitive, Thesaurus-influenced approach is simply not for me. It makes the whole thing seem so laboured. Using a verbal sledge hammer is an odd way to generate laughter, in my experience. Never trusting the reader enough to allow them to work out for themselves that a joke is being cracked - or is about to be - seems to me a condescending kind of method.
Yet every single time Amis is about to articulate something he considers amusing, he cannot resist flashing textual warning lights and setting off verbal sirens, just in case you might be too thick to pick up that he is on the point of being - or at least trying to be - droll.
It is like being locked in a cupboard with the literary equivalent of that nudge-nudge Monty Python character. Throughout the entire work, he is there, looking over your shoulder or squeezing up beside you, winking and digging you in the metaphorical ribs. It wouldn't surprise me if in the Kindlefire version of the novel blinding neon signs have been inserted around the edges of pages, to alert you to humour by flashing the words, “JOKE IN PROGRESS” at appropriate points. Amis seems unable to cope with the possibility that you might not recognise exaggeration or grotesquery or whatever effect he intends to blast you with. He becomes the joke teller who laughs at his own punchlines. He revels so in his own originality, doubling up at his own gags, (which you could see coming several miles off), that he leaves no opportunity for you to edge in a faint chuckle of your own.
But I suppose it is all down to stylistic taste. Clearly, one of the points of Amis is his labouring and his exaggeration and his repetition and his baroque heaping on of more and more and yet more verbiage. While these are all elements that I dislike in his writing, I assume that he - along with some of his contemporaries, e.g. Will Self - is in revolt against the Hemingway/Chandler et cetera crisp, streamlined model of prose. In other words he is self aware; he is banging on and on completely deliberately. His repetition laden mode of operation is knowing, rather than the result of an inability to be succinct. The fact that the great steaming pile of verbiage that results does not interest or entertain me is not necessarily a sign that it is bad; it is at least done intentionally, with the aim of not being short, sharp, minimalistically to the point. Therefore, possibly the problem is not that Amis is no good so much as that he is no good for me. That is to say, what I demand from fiction is not what Amis is intending to provide.
It is therefore unfair to condemn Amis’s work, except on the grounds of my own personal taste. Within the scope of Amis’s own private conception of what literature should be, he may well succeed. He may well have achieved that which he planned. Starting from the position that we all share one huge insight and that is that humans are universally idiotic and vile and life is a huge joke played by an indifferent universe, he sets out to create a world where the loathsome, despicable creature called man is systematically stuffing everything up. There is much evidence that this may be a horribly accurate assessment of existence but it is still a very bleak scenario. Reading a novel where the reader is invited simply to stand back and sneer at the antics of his fellow humans is ultimately a dispiriting venture, in my opinion. However, after a discussion with a member of my family who is loving London Fields, I realise that it can give pleasure to others who demand exactly this level of cynicism and despair from a work of fiction.
Which leaves me only able to say that I personally hated the book - and also that I thought it was utterly unoriginal, indeed possibly plagiaristic. That is, in its plot the thing is a straight out steal of Muriel Spark’s The Driving Seat - at least that’s how it appears to me.