I completed reading this gem by Martin Amis for the second time last night. The first time I read it was probably back in my Rompin days. I bought the book at some second-hand warehouse sale. Anyway, this second reading proved to be a better one: I was too young and literally naive back then to fully appreciate Mr. Amis’ dry and very serious narrative style.
The novel revolves around the exploits of Samson Young who comes to London to write about a murder that’s about to happen. From the vantage point of the narrator, we get the chilling account – verging on panic at times due to Amis’ excellent prose – of the anatomy of a murder.
The young (but terminally ill) Samson Young befriends 3 central figures: Nicola Six, Keith Talent and Guy Clinch.
Keith Talent (the murderer, if you believe Samson) is the prodigal son of the streets of London. A cheat as Samson describes him, Keith is no stranger to non-violent crime. He sells cheap perfumes, cons old ladies to take fake vacations and has numerous lady ‘friends’. He’s married to Kath Talent and they have a baby daughter, Kim. (On the subject of Kim, a heartbreaking subplot emerges as Samson develops love for the hapless infant).
Guy Clinch is a rich London banker. Married to Hope Clinch, the American socialite and they have a terrifying little monster of a toddler called Marmaduke. He gets introduced to Keith and they both frequent the Black Cross, the quintessential central London pub with its assortment of colourful characters, dirty toilets, peculiar brews and smoke.
Nicola Six, the murderee, however is the star of this narrative. Her motives in staging her own murder is intelligent and literary. The anti-heroine, she assumes many roles in the complex relationships she has with Keith and Guy. The reader is often left breathless as she devilishly motivates her men to drive the final nail into the coffin, so to speak, out of love or sex or both.
Its a dense, complex read which leaves the reader confounded by the complexity of time, setting and points of view. Amis’ language is lyrical at times, perfectly cadenced descriptions of London streets, its grey skies and the ever present air of solitude. It’s a funny, funny read if you can get used to his deadpan humour, gloriously dark against the novel’s allusion to pre-millenial angst.
It’s 6.32 pm now as I write this, but I’ll end with Samson Young’s exquisite little observation regarding London nights, loneliness and the bane of existence:
It reeked of sleep. Somnopolis. It reeked of it, and of insomniac worry and disquiet, and thwarted escape. Because we are all poets or little babies in the middle of the night, struggling with being.