The Murderer and the Murderee – LONDON FIELDS by Martin Amis

…’the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’… Roland Barthes (1977)

London Fields is not in west London as Amis suggests, it is a real place in Hackney, east London.  Unlike Mrs Dalloway’s London, where you can still accurately follow in her footsteps today, Amis wrong-foots us so that we have to work out where we are and what is really happening.  This is not a simple tale of an urban Arcadia despite the title’s implication that this might be the case.

Having entered into an across-the-pond flat swap, Samson Young finds himself in Mark Asprey’s London home, ready to finally overcome his writer’s block, as the world rushes towards an uncertain new Millennium and he faces death from terminal illness.  His two previous titles, ‘Memoirs of a Listener’ and ‘On The Grapevine’ appear to support his assertion that he ‘just can’t make anything up.’  He counts himself fortunate, therefore, when a perfect cast of characters enters his life to provide the dialogue, almost all the action, and the locations required to complete his murder story.  The self-appointed Murderee, Nicola Six, has selected her thirty-fifth birthday as the day of her death because she cannot face the ageing process.

As Guy Clinch walks down the Portobello Road, he sees it as a ‘whole trench scuffed and frayed, falling apart, and full of rats.’  Amis’s London is one where family life is disintegrating, and unspecified threats of nuclear war and climate change hang over everyone.  The Black Cross has become a haven for Keith, Guy, Sam and Nicola Six and a space for dirty jokes and hatching plots.  ‘If London’s a pub and you want the whole story, then where do you go?  You go to a London pub.’  Keith Talent’s only talent is for playing darts and we can almost smell the stale air as his arrows fly across the smoke and gloom to thwack into the board.

There is a good deal of black humour in London Fields.  For example, when Keith is daydreaming about forthcoming riches and fame, he toys with the idea of himself as Keithcliff after reading a few pages of Wuthering Heights, but then they do share some character traits so perhaps it’s not so funny after all.

The impossibly cramped flat where Keith and Kath live – although ‘live’ is rather too expansive a word for a space that produces such disproportionate violence –  seems to crush any potential humanity.  But it is out of this same space that the Angel of the tower block, baby Kim, emerges full of hope, truth and innocence.  So, there is light at the end of the tunnel?  Perhaps, but then there is the counterbalance in monstrous Marmaduke who, even at a very tender age, you would not like to meet down a dark alley.  The product of a luxurious home with two of everything – except Marmaduke thankfully – we are forced to consider the question of nature versus nurture, and poverty versus plenty – or are we?

Written in 1989 but set in 1999, Simon Schama has described London Fields as ‘one of the all-time great London novels’.  However, this book does appear to be about the craft of writing as much as the story itself and could equally be described as exploring the postmodern zeitgeist.  All this, of course, is open to debate…

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What makes a poignant story?

What a fantastic discussion of the the book Neverwhere! In our meeting Wednesday the most common comment was along the lines of “This isn’t a book I would normally read, but I liked it.”. My main question for the group now would be, why would you not normally read this sort of book? While some like Brian have answered this already in class mentioning that they used to read sci-fi but felt they had outgrown it, I still would love to know more reasons, and how this book kind of surprised you a bit.

We discussed the characters that were the most poignant and most agreed that Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar were most effective. This was partially because of their plausibility in real life, and their undeniable ability to unsettle the reader. The group commented on how their professionalism helped the characters seem more real. Betsy noted that they always address each other properly as mister. Are there any other devices Gaiman uses with his characters that not only make them real but push the boundaries of the fantastic that you find particularly effective?

Finally, as can be seen in Pete’s comment, there is wonderful commentary that describes the relationship between London Above and Below. My favorite city commentary occurs on page 249 when Richard endures the ordeal ” London Transport would like to apologize for the delay. This is due to an incident at Blackfriars Station. ‘To do that.’ said Gary, incline his head. ‘Become an incident at Blackfriars station. To end it all.”  It’s another jolting quote like the one Pete brought up. It takes something we take for granted, London sewers, train delays, and brings them to the forefront. Noone here thinks about the sewers and their health, and most people hear ‘Person Under Train’ and get annoyed that their stop is down. Are these views from London Below effective social commentary? Does this joining of the two and comparing them help make London Below more believable to you as the reader? Or does it push you away a bit?

Just some food for thought and remarking on some of the things that were said at the meeting. I hope you all enjoyed your trip to a different London and now it’s time to introduce the next book which Anne will be presenting. Next up, London Fields.

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Slipping through the Cracks – Neverwhere

“There are hundreds of people in this other London. Thousands maybe. People who come from here, or people who have fallen through the cracks. I’m wandering around with a girl called Door, her bodyguard, and her psychotic grand vizier.”

Welcome to London below, a semi medieval dystopian world situated conveniently alongside our own. No one appears to notice it though, not unless they slip through the cracks of our London, London above. It’s filled with magic in its stranger forms – bounty hunters who eat ancient Chinese artwork, people who speak to rats, a wild ancient beast, evil angels, and much more.

Quite a far cry from our previous two selections, I chose Neverwhere for a taste of surreal London. In this London, Earl’s Court is a car on a train, Old Bailey is the man who lives up on a roof, the Serpentine is a noble woman and Islington is an angel. We as readers have our knowledge of London challenged by this book. We are forced to view it differently in order to keep pace.

Gaiman uses this new setting in semi familiar places to challenge the reader to see things from a different perspective. One of the more masterful things done in this book is in the very beginning where Richard can’t answer his phone, talk to his friend, or be seen by his landlord. The reader is put into a disoriented state. Once we become more integrated with London below we learn about the politics. We observe what appears to be a fully functional society and its problems, and then we are allowed to take those brief trips to London above with Anaesthesia or with Richard and Door at the museum to see how the problems are inherent in both societies. Often these problems are caricatured as characters, which allows Gaiman to do some beautiful social commentary. Perhaps the most obvious jab is when Mr. Stockton (obviously representing capitalist greed) is described and we get to meet him at the museum after seeing the mental toll he takes on his high strung assistant Jessica. (There are dozens of other commentaries that I encourage you all to discuss either in class or in the comments if you wish. )

We follow our archetypal band of merry heroes against seemingly obvious villains (well,  up until the end) and are bombarded with Gaiman’s themes of politics, overlooking the outcast, treachery, constant change in the urban space, and class struggles.

Gaiman’s London is a rich tapestry of dark humour woven with shreds of history and rich stores of magic. We follow along on this modern hero’s tale and learn that we never really see anything until we are able to slip through the cracks. Once we see things in a new light, in an enlightened state, we are not allowed to return to the world we once thought we understood.

As a side note, the TV series came before this book. As Gaiman was writing the series and working with his producers he was taking notes of things he wanted to add into the novel to flesh it out. Once filming started he began to write the novel and the novel was released during the airing of the show.

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Alienation in the City – A Week In December

Artwork by Fossfor

First of all, my apologies for the rather late appearance of the post on this weeks novel, A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks. Better late than never eh?

A commendably ambitious novel, A Week In December attempts to capture the whole cornucopia of modern London within seven different characters over seven days in the city. It is often compared unfavourably with Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, as an effort to do for London in the first decade of the 21st century what Wolfe did for New York in the 80’s. That is, to capture the essence of London in that moment in time and the state of the nation as a whole. But a great deal has changed in thirty years and they are two very different novels. The 21st century has brought with it a deluge of information, stimuli, materialism and immaterialism. The sheer amount of which the human psyche has never had to contend with before. As a result A Week In December is considerably less focused than Wolfe’s great work but endeavors to be much more all-encompassing. Stereotype and even caricature are perhaps unavoidable consequences of this aim; from the greedy investment banker, and the lonely tube-driver, to the disaffected young British Muslim and embittered literary critic. These characters are convincing to varying degrees but what unifies them and the whole novel is the sense of alienation and disconnect from the real world, the real London around them. The urban space is a common setting for depictions of alienation, with its high density of people leading busy lives it is a paradoxical yet familiar feature of human nature that we can feel at our most alone when surrounded by others. What is remarkable about A Week In December is the sheer number of ways in which it shows us individuals can feel alienated from modern society. Hassan, striving for an adult identity, begins to loathe the ‘kafir‘ world around him that he cannot relate to. Tranter, socially ill at ease, rejects everything modern and admits to having “a particularly sympathetic feeling, even at the age of eighteen, for the Victorians.” Finn, neglected by his parents, escapes to a world of fantasy football, the unreality of reality tv and drug altered states. Jenni, with some allusion to a painful past, escapes in her work, her books and most obviously to a completely virtual world in the online game Parallax every evening. Gabriel, one of the the more astute and reflective characters, observes of Jenni and himself,

And what if she was hiding from something underground? Wasn’t he, really, doing the same with his crossword puzzle and his French novels?”

Peripheral characters also play a role in this theme of alienation. Roger, given the rousing monologue against the modern financial system towards the end of the novel, has long taken to drink as he feels so out of touch and tired with the modern world. Nasim also, reflects touchingly on an age-old sense of alienation from her son,

She felt saddened by her inability to reach the heart of Hassan’s problems and bruised by his coldness […] when once, when he was young, they had had this majestic intimacy.”

John Veals is alienated from the world around him in a starkly different way. With hints of Patrick Bateman about him, he is frighteningly disconnected from his wife, son, and the real world around him, exhibiting a chilling amorality in bringing about the suffering of thousands, maybe even millions, for his own personal gain. Veal’s world is the absurd, abstract and inequitable world of modern finance which he observes almost proudly:

was no longer related to growth or increase, but became self-sustaining; and in this semi-virtual world, the amount of money to be made by financiers also became unhitched from normal logic.”

Karl Marx posited alienation was a systemic consequence of capitalism, and the city, particularly London, is always the epitomised vanguard of capitalism. A Week in December arguably suggests the same, centred so inescapably around money and materialism as it is. Sophie Topping, towards the end of the novel, reflects on the unreal level of accumulated wealth of her dinner guests which highlights the contradiction and irony between this obsession with the material in a vacuously immaterial world:

It was a funny thing, Sophie thought, how everyone you met these days seemed not just to be wealthy but insanely, ineffably, immeasurably rich. Hundreds of millions of useless pounds slopping out of their accounts and into hedge funds and private-equity companies who could no longer find anything worth buying with it. […] But apart from Farooq al-Rashid, who’d shifted tons of limes from the groves of Mexico and Iran via the steaming vats of Renfrew down the gullets of the masses and thence into the sewers underground, none of them had engaged with anything that actually existed.”

Faulks portrays a modern London profoundly disconnected from the real world in innumerable ways, and much of the novel is a darkly satirical indictment of the state of the nation. But there is the hint of salvation for several characters. Finn’s mother is roused from her stupor of midday snoozes and societal lunches by his slip in to psychosis. Hassan’s brush with death (real or imagined) at the hands of an unseen cyclist is the only human contact he unwittingly achieves on the bridge, which awakens him to the absurdity of his actions, and directs him to the one person he trusts enough to reveal his true self to. And Gabriel and Jenni’s burgeoning relationship offers a human connection both of them so clearly yearn for.

Finally, Gabriel, in reflecting on a past love, perhaps most eloquently sums up this feeling of disconnect with London and wider society that persists throughout the novel:

“In any event, he thought, perhaps his problem was not so much the loss of Catalina as a failure of engagement – or rather an incongruity. Here was this world –London, the park and trees and the people in his chambers and the precedents he studied, the case law, paperwork; there was the culture it threw at him in cinemas, in galleries, and in the self-devouring press and television with all its horrifying ‘reality’ programmes; and then the weather, chance of travel, other people, going out. That was what was on offer, out there. And then on the other hand there was him – the sum of random mutations among his ancestors, one outlying bud of an unstable species. Why would you expect b to like or enjoy a? What, really, were the chances of an overlap, a rough fit, let alone a congruence? The odd thing wasn’t that his spirit – if that was what it was, the flickering of electrical charge and spill of chemicals through a synapse – failed to lift to meet this world; the more remarkable thing was how many people did seem to like it, slotted into it and felt right at home there. Lucky them.”

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The ‘Writer Reader’

Underwood Typewriter

Underwood Typewriter

Following from Pete’s comment to my first post on Mrs Dalloway, this week we started off our discussion of Woolf’s text with a key question: do writers read book differently?

Are we, as writers, robbed of the pleasure of losing ourselves in the fictional worlds of our favourite books, as we try too hard to dissect characters, map out the plots, querying the position of a comma and the structure of a paragraph? Many writers, like Betsy, certainly recognised that one could be easily overwhelmed by the task. Pete suggested that as a writer you become more aware of certain technical details. You look out for the balance between dialogue and description, for example. As a ‘writer reader’, you absorb details in a much more conscious fashion than you would as a ‘reader reader’; you simply get more out of it, Crystal added. This is, of course, particularly true when we consider the relationship that exists between a book and the space it represents. As a ‘writer reader’ living and working in London, the experience of reading Mrs Dalloway may turn into an involuntary (?) process of mapping out the places visited by Woolf’s characters in June 1923. It is hardly surprising, as Ben noted, that various maps and itineraries have been drawn to follow Clarissa, Peter Walsh and Septimus around theirLondon.

The London Walks of Mrs Dalloway by E.K. Sparks Clemson University (2002)

So reading Mrs Dalloway prompts us to become flaneurs, strolling, lingering, dwelling spectators of the city space, whose patterns we map, and re-map continuously. The city becomes text, Anne observed of the intertextual structure of Woolf’s novel, a text that is constantly being reinscribed by new journeys and, of course, new incomers. As Naji pointed out, the city is a different space to those who have just arrived – we think of Maisie Johnson, for instance, in Mrs Dalloway – and whose London is – temporarily, at least – a point of arrival. To the newly-arrived foreign visitor, London appears, strangely perhaps, like a network of unknown trajectories, invisible, like the fine line of a spider’s cobweb, as Martin Amis intriguingly puts it, in another classic London novel, London Fields. To Peter Walsh, who has just returned from India, London is, as Jude noted, certainly a different city, a place, where, for instance, young women ostentatiously put their make-up on in public. In a sense, other readers have suggested, Woolf’s novel produces a ‘homeopathic’ view of London (Brian). Rather than focusing, overwhelmingly, on the British capital, Wool’f London becomes the more universal embodiment of the modern metropolis, pointing to the dramatic social changes, and their impact on the people who lived, worked and travelled to the largest city in Europe, to find it, as Maisie claims, rather queer.

The public space, too, is juxtaposed to the private space, which, to readers such as Anete, reveals the much more intimate emotional space occupied by a character: such is the moment when Clarissa retires to her bedroom, alone, at last, and focusing on her present condition, undistracted by the flood of memories which the other, more public spaces she occupies, triggers. And this is the real power of a writer such as Woolf, who sucks the reader into the worlds of her characters, whose repressed desires and longing hopes we become part of: as Crystal observed, her narrative style allows the reader to bounce off each character, multiplying the perspectives, layering the spaces these characters shape through the patterns of elliptical repetitions, Brian noted, which expose the tricks of her trade to the ‘writer reader’. Such, for example, is Clarissa’s (apparently random) memory of her throwing a shilling in the Serpentine, evocatively placed toward the beginning and the end of the novel.

To finish off, the group focused on humour, which a writer like Woolf is not always associated with. Yet the book does make us smile, hinting to the distance that the writer can establish with the subject matter of her writing. Being able to laugh with our characters, even when writing of serious matters, may be rather refreshing, as Woolf does, at the expense, perhaps, of Hugh Whitbread:

here was dear Hugh driving up and spending an hour talking of the past, remembering trifles, praising the home-made cake, though Hugh might eat cake with a Duchess any day of his life, and, to look at him, probably did spend a good deal of time in that agreeable occupation.

Our next book is Sebastian Faulks’s A Week In December (2009), and we look forward to reading posts by our next guest blogger, Jon Kearnes, sometimes next week!

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Why Mrs Dalloway?

Brocco, 'Virginia Woolf',En la calle Augusta, en el mismo muro que George Sand, São Paulo, Brasil

It’s an obvious choice, isn’t it?

If we are going to start a journey through the literary labyrinth that is London writing, why not start with Mrs Dalloway’s own perambulations through the city’s West End? In its dynamically vibrant celebration of the city and its modernity, Virginia Woolf’s novel strikes us for its sensuous reading of the urban space, captured as it is in its inability to stay still. Woolf’s narrative weaves in and out of Clarissa’s consciousness, as her thoughts are indissolubly married to the city space which generates them. Even though a significant part of Clarissa’s musings travels back, with longing nostalgia, to her past and her previous life outside of London, Clarissa herself admits that ‘walking in London […] [i]s better than walking in the country.’ This may just read like small talk; Clarissa is, after all, trying to get out of an awkward bit of conversation with Hugh Whitbread. But later on, and throughout the book, there is a growing sense of vitality, a deep understanding of the powerful energy oozing out of the city, its crowded streets, its tempting shops, its monumental architecture: ‘Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lifts its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved’. In a narrative which is, in more than one way, haunted by the spectres of the past war, illness and death hover on each page, and particularly in the passages following the nervous steps of Septimus Smith, whose London is not a source of relief, but of painful and traumatic associations. Yet, in spite of the looming tragedy – which is somehow too easily dismissed as something inevitable at the end of the novel – the predominant mood is one of celebration. The relentless carnival of the metropolis, the visual spectacle, the polyphony of its sounds, the cornucopia of transgressive pleasures – think, for example, of the omnibus journey that Elizabeth undertakes, thrilled and unchaperoned – somehow minimises even further the insignificant impact of an individual life, its happiness and its sorrows too small to become visible against the colossal backdrop of the urban canvas. Woolf’s stream of consciousness, of course, makes this point rather more poignantly than my brief review:

‘Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? But that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.’

In transcending the limits of human mortality, the city becomes palimpsest, its geological strata made of the lives of its people who walk its streets every day, brushing past each other, not knowing that, somehow, their journeys have converged, even if just instantaneously, and been part of London’s immortal magic.

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The London Reading Club

Welcome to the London Reading Club, the book group attached to the MA Writing the City at the University of Westminster.

Every two weeks we will meet to discuss our favourite books, poems, stories about London. Follow us on-line to find out more about our literary journey through the city!

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