The Truth is Not Wanted: Television and Literature In Martin Amis’s London Fields
London Fields, Lionsgate
by Eric D. Lehman
The long-delayed release of the film version of Martin Amis’s London Fields gives us the opportunity to revisit this prescient novel of murder and crisis. At our seemingly dystopic point in history, the book speaks to those of us in the media and the arts with an overblown sense of our own importance and virtue. Amis takes pains to show us the difference between the ideal and the real, by focusing on our relationship with both television and literature. However, he doesn’t give us the usual dichotomies between high and low culture. Instead, he shows how both literature and television fail us.
The book is full of characters that can’t cope with reality. Unsuccessful writer Samson Young narrates the tale, and along the way we meet unhappy banker Guy Clinch, criminal darts player Keith Talent, and morbid clairvoyant Nicola Six, who brings all the other characters together through her strange death wish. In fact, she knows from the get-go that she will be murdered, and this provides a mystery for the reader, leading us through the tangled web of relationships to the bitter end.
In Amis’s dystopic world, television is as bland and colorless as anyone could fear it to be. However, to Keith Talent television represents a dream life, which he associates with money, power, and anything else he could possibly want. While he sits in his shoebox apartment, surrounded by his poverty-stricken life, the reader learns: “He confronted the image, the bright astronomy, of what Guy had and Keith’s stream of consciousness simply stopped flowing. It dried up. TV, he thought. It was the best he could do.” This idea of the rich as living a perfect soap opera life obviously does not mesh with the grim reality of Guy’s terrifying home life, but of course television has sold Keith a false bill of goods.
Nevertheless, for Keith as for so many others TV is “modern reality” or “the world.” Nicola tells Keith that an actor is gay and Keith disagrees, saying, “Camera don’t lie.” Nicola knows the reality of the situation, thinking to herself, “Film, Keith…it’s not real.” Later she even says, “They believe in each other’s lies like they believe in television.” However, in Keith’s world, “the telly” tells all. Riots and wars are real, but so are the fictional shows, where everything is “all beautifully and gracefully interconnected, where nothing hurt much and nobody got old. It was a high trapeze…up there, beyond a taut and twanging safety net called money.” Visions of this “higher” reality have given a sort of meaning to Keith’s life: to get on TV and therefore to have money and power.
Keith doesn’t even watch straight television; he controls it with freeze-frame and fast forward, making an exemplary reality even more appealing. A freeze-frame of Nicola, a “living statue,” is “the real thing” to him. He searches through the six hours of TV he records every night for images of “sex, violence, and sometimes money.” Image is everything, and the perfect image means the perfect life, with himself in control. Even supposedly non-fiction shows do not address reality, and news programs are reduced to soap opera, glossing over reality. This attitude seems to be a problem not only for these characters, but for the entire culture. Indeed, it is close enough to modern culture for readers to wonder whether this is a futuristic dystopia or our own flawed world.
Keith plagiarizes from Darts: Master the Discipline, writing “Remember that you are a machine…Clear ideas from your head. You do’nt[sic] want nothing in you fukcing[sic] head.” Although this actually is the way one should play darts, Keith lives his whole life in this manner. He clears his mind of all emotion, in fact, he feels nothing but the ambition to become “TV.” Whenever he talks about darts, he sounds like a television announcer, devoid of emotion. His “eyes are television.” Having watched television constantly, he has also become fake and meaningless. He creates the lie of his lifestyle on Dartworld.
Occasionally, the veil is nearly lifted, as when he buys When Scandinavian Bodies Go Mouth Crazy and instead of pornography, it turns out to be a tape of old men talking about hospital policy. On one occasion he thinks about getting his middle finger broken and knows it wouldn’t be “TV hurting,” it would be real. Finally, television is exposed to Keith as a complete lie, when he is scheduled to appear on it. “Himself on TV: he couldn’t work out how the two worlds overlapped.” Keith becomes confused about his upcoming appearance: “still clinging to the notion that the biodoc would be screened only at those locations where it had been filmed.” When Keith goes to the dart finals, he confronts the glamorous lie; there is no pub for him to play in, “none of the fog and gurgling clamour that he had come to think of as his darting lifeblood.” The world of television is not only an empty sound stage, it has none of the glamour that Keith believed it would.
Literature would usually offer an alternative to television. Nicola calls Samson Young a “literalist.” Missy’s assistant also calls Samson’s writing, “a little literary.” Guy is also a literalist, “a rather literary literalist” At first, since we are getting most of the opinions in the book from Samson’s perspective, this seems to be a good thing. Mainly through Samson’s trashing of Mark Asprey’s work we are led to believe that “literature” has quality, it presents meaning, whereas pulp fiction like Asprey, tabloids, or television is soul-less. It soon becomes evident that this is not exactly true.
In Amis’s world, literature approaches reality by making symbols out of it, thereby giving it some sort of meaning. However, these symbols have little substance. Describing Analiese Furnish, Samson Young says, “In the book, she stood for something. In the flesh, she was pointless: a complete waste of time. Or not quite. In the flesh she broke your heart, as all human beings do.” Samson is outlining the way that literature gives meaning to meaninglessness. It has nothing to do with reality. This is supported by the narrator’s description of how Sancho Panza in Don Quixote spouts meaningless adages for fifteen pages and Don Quixote finally interrupts him to tell his sidekick that “each one hath been like a dagger through my very soul.” Quixote has taken meaning from Sancho’s meaninglessness in the same way literature does from life.
Non-fiction, a close relative of “literal literary” fiction holds no answers for the characters, either. Keith’s book, Darts: Master the Discipline outlines the sport of darts in a supposedly historical perspective, but concocts facts and statistics. Keith reads Darts to justify his “profession” to himself. Guy’s baby books cannot help him take care of Marmaduke any more than literature can. Furthermore, when Samson reads Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust and tells us that it could be German comedy, he points out the that literature can mean vastly different things to different people. This fact seems to indicate, at least in London Fields, that it serves no final purpose. Guy tells Hope, “for everyone here the sun is different on the water. No two people are seeing the same thing…But then it’s hopeless…Utterly hopeless.” No real meaning can be found in beauty or art, it cannot connect people like it supposedly should.
Literature, something that gives contrived meaning to things, is not wanted in the TV saturated culture anyway. Samson knows that Marius Appleby’s book, Crossbone Waters, is “awful shit,” yet he can’t put it down. People want adventure, soap opera, and happiness for entertainment, not reality or literature that deals with reality. Kim Talent babbles the prophecy of the innocent, “Adieu, adore, ordure, idea.” This means “good-bye to love, order, and ideas,” themes that give meaning in art and possibly to life.
In the same way that Keith should know that television will fail him, Samson and Guy should know the limits of literature. The narrator tells us, “like everyone else I’m finding it harder and harder to pick up a book.” Later in the novel he repeats, “I can’t read books, which are meant to be easy, easy to read.” Nicola constantly gives Guy literary hints as to her true nature: once she quotes from “Lamia” by Keats, where the woman turns out to be a snake. He doesn’t get it.
The most self-aware character, Nicola Six, manipulates Guy and Keith, exploiting the gap between the real and the ideal. When Keith reminisces about how Nicola dressed his screwdriver wound, he makes the connections, “TV, Keith speculated. Brings them closer together innit.” Guy says about his continuing situation with Nicola, idealizing love: “This is definitely non-fiction.” However, both characters have completely lost touch with reality. Nicola is not in love with Guy, is not really a virgin, and is making a pornographic tape for Keith. Likewise, Nicola is not going to take Keith out of his mundane life into TV land; she fools him into believing she wants him.
One of the most obviously symbolic scenes in the novel takes place when Nicola demonstrates the illusion of both art forms. Guy watches Keith and Nicola on the video camera discussing literature. However, the screen is lying, Keith doesn’t know what he is talking about and furthermore Nicola has her skirt pulled up above her waist. When the situation is reversed and Keith watches Guy and Nicola from the bedroom. he says that he “had always suspected that when Guy and Nicola were alone together they just talked poetry,” the opposite of what Guy thought about Keith and Nicola. Keith’s delusion is that she does this for his benefit, but this scene is just as contrived as the other one.
Nicola’s own relationship to television and literature becomes a little more complex. She can foresee the future, which seems to link her to the predictably of cheap television. Keith and Samson compare her to a TV character countless times. However, she also tells Samson that “all women want to be the bitch in the book.” She then gets very upset with Samson’s manuscript; she wanted to be tragic, to mean something, but he has made her ridiculous. This seems to show that Nicola has failed – her life and more pointedly her death are not television, nor are they literature. Her death is the ugly reality of a heavy car-tool smashing her skull.
The most prophetic and stomach-dropping point in the book comes in a letter to the narrator from Mark Asprey: “It doesn’t matter what anyone writes any more. The time for mattering has passed. The truth doesn’t matter anymore and is not wanted.” It’s a grim view of our increasingly dystopic culture, and of own human weakness in confronting it. The first thing we turn to is usually the escape of television or the created meaning of literary art. Martin Amis’s disturbing classic London Fields shows how poorly that might work out for everyone involved.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport and his work has been published in dozens of journals and magazines. He is the author of twelve books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Follow him @afootinconnecticut, and visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.