Homicide--part 1

Narrative and Narrated Homicide in Martin Amis's Other People and London Fields

By Brian Finney, California State University, Long Beach

Reprinted by permission; originally published in Critique 37 (1995): 3-15.

    Martin Amis is not a crime writer. Yet murder and violence features repeatedly in most of his novels. The Rachel Papers (1973) confines its sadism to a literary hatchet job executed by the narrator on the girl he seduces and discards in the course of his nineteenth year. Dead Babies (1975) ends in an orgy of mass killings. Success (1978) has at its climax the suicide of the two protagonists' (step) sister, a victim of both their needs. Her suicide parallels the stepbrother's memory of his sister's murder by their father. Other People. A Mystery Story (1981) takes for its central character a woman who was murdered by her homicidal lover before the book even opens. Money. A Suicide Note (1984), as its title suggests, is meant to end, but doesn't, with the death of the protagonist and narrator - maybe he escapes his fate because he is also the narrator. Einstein's Monsters (1987), five stories set before and after a nuclear holocaust, is necessarily filled with death and mass destruction. London Fields (1989) follows the Machiavellian schemes of its female protagonist to have herself murdered by one of three potential murderers. Finally Time's Arrow (1991) recounts the life (backwards) of a Nazi doctor and mass murderer.

Why does death, murder and victimization appear so frequently in Amis's fiction? The answer lies not just in the murderous nature of contemporary civilization. It also has to do with the nature of the narrative act. In his later novels beginning with Other People this prevalence of violence against one or more of the characters is accompanied by the introduction into the narrative of the narrator in person (rather than as a disguised author-figure, such as the tutor near the end of The Rachel Papers). This typically postmodern device draws attention to the highly ambiguous role played by any narrator in fiction. Whoever narrates a story both creates and annihilates characters. Amis calls his books "playful literature" (Neustatter 71) and describes himself as "a comic writer interested in painful matters" (Smith 79). Brought up during the Cold War with its perpetual threat of nuclear annihilation, and finding himself in a world close to ecological disaster, Amis maintains that "it isn't a set purpose to make this life look frightful. It is, to the writer, self-evidently frightful" (Haffenden 7). In the postmodern world, he argues, the "idea that the novelist punishes bad characters and rewards good ones doesn't bear up any more" (Rayner 20). At the same time he points out that the author is not free of sadistic impulses. But, he comments, it isn't real sadism, because he doesn't believe in his characters in the same sense that he believes in real people (Haffenden 12). Nonetheless the author, in mercilessly manipulating his characters to suit his purposes, does vicariously participate in the viciousness of the age in which he lives.

Amis, then, appears to be exploring in his novels the highly ambiguous relationship that pertains between a writer and the characters whom he tortures into life. Unable as a contemporary writer to rearrange life's random nature to fit a fixed moral order, he instead treats all his characters with his black sense of quixotic humor. "The writer," he observes, "is in a god-like relation to what he creates" (Bragg). By inserting the writer's substitute self, the narrator, into the action, he is inviting his readers to share with him his unease at the role he is asked to play as novelist. In effect he is problematizing the act of narration and implicating his wanton readers in the way they - we - encourage him to play god and kill his characters for his and our sport. Amis wants his readers, like a theatre audience, to recognize their simultaneous immersion in and exteriority to the action. Classic realist novels encourage their readers to push their awareness of the artificiality of the fictional world they are entering to the back of their minds. Metafictional postmodernists such as Amis, on the other hand, desire their readers to maintain a balance or dialogue between the two perpectives - that of the character(s), and that of the godlike author's fictional incarnation, the narrator. This is a difficult task. Yet in his four novels from Other People to Time's Arrow he has come up with ingeniously different solutions to this problem with each new book. This essay will concentrate on two of these books, Other People and London Fields, so as to explore the connection between the presence of the manipulative, self-conscious narrator within the fiction and the fictional characters who are ultimately seen to be victims of the capricious narrator.


This site is featured in
BBC.gif (1270 bytes)
BBC Education Web Guide

Homicide-- part 2
Homicide-- part 3
Works Cited


frontpag.gif (9866 bytes)


ie1.gif (14871 bytes)


Site maintained by James Diedrick, author of Understanding Martin Amis, 2nd edition (2004).
 All contents © 2004.
Last updated 10 December, 2004. Please read the Disclaimer



Home | Discussion Board  | Disclaimer Understanding Martin Amis  | James Diedrick  | Albion College