An End-of-Millennium Murder

LONDON FIELDS, by Martin Amis, New York: Harmony Books, 470 pp., $19.95 AT first glance, Martin Amis's new novel, ``London Fields,'' is a foul-mouthed, flyblown affair, as unkempt as the pub where Keith Talent sharpens his dart game and plans his next cheat.

Keith is a masterful creation, the best and the brightest from London's mean streets.

``London Fields'' looks like a realistic novel at first. But Keith's nemesis, Nicola Six, is ``not real.'' She's a femme fatale, world weary to the point of exhaustion. For Nicola, kissing is a martial art; a whole chapter is devoted to her many moves. She thinks of herself as a black hole in space. At the end of her rope, she summons her considerable energy and brains for only one end: to become a murderess and implicate a man in the process.

Keith presents himself. Nicola works him into a frenzy by playing on his appetite for pornography, his pride in his dart game, and his deep commitment to video values.

Indeed, when Keith first sees the beauteous Nicola, he reaches for a term of praise and says, ``TV.'' And we learn that ``[w]hen Keith goes to a football match, that misery of stringer's clich'es is what he actually sees.'' Even his life is described in video terms: As momentum builds, his life is on fast forward.

Nicola's little Armageddon includes Keith's social opposite, a public-school straight arrow, Guy Clinch. All Keith would know about Guy, though he grew up six long blocks from his estate, would come from TV documentaries of Britain's plutocracy. Guy is married to the disenchanting tennis-playing Hope. Their son Marmaduke is a giant baby with a capacity for destruction that makes Keith look positively gentle. As for Keith, we read: ``And this is why Guy honored him and pitied him and admired him and envied him (and, he sometimes thought, even vaguely fancied him): because he was poor.''

Nicola manipulates these men by fulfilling their polar-opposite images of woman. To Keith she is the porno-queen; to Guy, the orphaned ingenue. The patterning is neat, but what Nicola wants is not social harmony but an explosion. ``Why should he have all the money?'' she asks Keith, referring to Guy. She plans each rendezvous so they meet each other on the stairs.

No, Nicola is not really Miss World; she embodies the fear of growing old that seems to be affecting even the planet as the millennium draws to a close. Among Keith, Guy, and Nicola, ``London Fields'' reaches out to all the major themes of our self-critical times - child abuse, wife battering (and the connection between the two), poverty, money, pornography, race, the bomb, class, industrial waste, poor housing, and the widespread acceptance of cheating as a way of life.

Martin Amis creates a sense of real life not by slavish imitation of human personality but by creating a rhythmic field of insights. Satire and vigorous narrative often yield to passages of strange lyric beauty, as when Keith's baby, Kim, murmurs ``Adieu, adore, ordure, idea.'' The book is full of contrasting voices. Amis has a fine ear for mimicry and his own sentences have a dreamlike coherence. From a distance, the book gives off a plangent sound, the tears of things, as here: ``An old woman with hair like coconut fibre limped past whipping herself with a home-made switch. For a moment Keith stood there listening to or at any rate hearing the cries of the city, like the cries of dogs and babies, answering pre-verbal, the inheritors of the millennium, awaiting their inheritance.'' Passages like this, and they are sometimes condensed to a mere phrase, gild the satire with a profound melancholy.

The narrator of satire is always a problem. Is he self-righteous, a prude, a voyeur, a sadist? Our narrator is Samson Young, an American come to London to write his last book before dying of some unidentified disease. Like Nicola, he is sick unto death of humanity. His assertions of reliability fall on deaf ears! The depth of his confusion masks from him the cynical sophistry of what he calls the central question of this late hour: ``If, at any moment, nothing might matter, then who said that nothing didn't matter already?''

Samson Young attributes his malaise to everybody in his novel. Even Guy Clinch, he thinks, ``had supped full of horrors, over breakfast, day after day, until he was numb with it, stupid with it, and his daily paper went unread. The expansion of mind, the communications revolution: well, there had been a contraction, and a counter-revolution. And nobody wanted to know ... Why am I doing this? he wondered. Because it's good? Thought - consecutive thought - ended there.''

The story doesn't end before everybody gets their just deserts. But as Samson Young observes, this is not so much a whodunit as a whydoit. That's its ultimate raison d'^etre. It satisfies our profound need for fictions that give us practice in drawing inferences from what we see and hear. How we contemplate some of the more disappointing aspects of life at the end of this millennium is the subject of ``London Fields.'' These problems are easy to avoid, given our numbness caused by overexposure to the bad news. If not facts, perhaps fictions will help us.

Fierce, funny, eloquent, magnanimous, ``London Fields'' is a stunning achievement. With it, Martin Amis joins Swift, Joyce, and Pynchon as one of the modern masters of the all-too-human heart.

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