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This Monstrous C ity: Urban Visionary Satire
in the Fiction of M artin Amis, Will Self,
China M iéville, and M aggie Gee
rom modernist inquiry into the metropolitan mind to
postmodernist interest in the sociocultural construction
of urban space, creative theory and practice of the last
century have been committed to investigating the urban
condition. The novel, whose generic history is bound up with
the development of the modern metropolis, has played a central
role in illuminating and shaping this investigation. Novelistic
discourse produced throughout European modernity reflects the
city's heterogeneous, palimpsestic character; late twentieth-
century fiction foregrounds these aspects of the fictional form in
order to investigate the relationship between language and place
and to reimagine the textual representation of urban environ-
ments. In London, the last two decades of the twentieth century
witnessed the emergence of a new type of fiction that draws on
the interconnected traditions of realist, satirical, and fantastic
writing to produce a generic hybrid: urban visionary satire.
While rejecting the methods of classical realist representation in
favor of imaginative, fantastic departures, visionary-satirical
novels retain the desire to portray the personal and collective
experience of their subjects, with the goal of offering an icono-
clastic, satirical critique of the contemporary metropolis.
The twinned impulse toward satire and fantastic vision is dis-
cernible in a number of London fictions produced in the 1980s
and 1990s. Other People (1981) by Martin Amis and Will Self's
How the Dead Live (2000) depict the British capital as a contem-
porary necropolis, drawing on Dante, William Blake, Jean-Paul
Contemporary Literature 51,1 0010-7484; E-ISSN 1548-9949/10/0001-0058
© 2010 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
M A C Z Y N S K A • 59
Sartre, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead; Self's Great Apes (1997)
and China Miéville's King Rat (1998) follow the metamorphic
tradition of Apuleius and Ovid to portray Londoners altered by
violent transformation in a city inhabited by talking apes and
rodents; Martin Amis in London Fields (1989) and Maggie Gee in
The Burning Book (1983) offer visionary apocalyptic narratives
that imagine an end-of-the-millennium London shadowed by
nuclear threat. All six narratives construct the British capital as
a historically specific locus but also, in varying degrees, an object
of dark satire and a site of fantastic transformations.
In visionary satirical fiction, ontology is tampered with; the
official facade of the city is stripped away; new layers of urban
space and meaning are exposed—or creatively imposed—as the
city undergoes its metamorphoses. This effect is achieved in a
number of ways: through introducing characters whose con-
sciousness has been radically altered, resulting in parallel alter-
ations of the cities they inhabit (Miéville's human-turned-rat.
Self's human-turned-ape, Amis's and Self's dead women);
through focusing on marginal or subterranean urban spaces (the
sewers and tube tunnels in Amis and Miéville, the dismal sub-
urbs in Self, the back alleys and underground topographies in
all four authors); through the intrusion of irrational forces into
the order of the metropolis (disembodied voices in Gee, mythical
creatures in Miéville); through uncanny readjustments of per-
spective or proportion (Self's diminished simian city, Amis's and
Gee's abnormal urban microclimates. Self's and Amis's oneiric
necropolises). What connects these various strategies is the dual
purpose they serve within their textual economies, combining
superrealist explorations of imaginary cityscapes with a satirical
critique of London's material, cultural, and social conditions at
the end of the second millennium.
The innovative energy of late-twentieth-century London fic-
tion reflects the turbulent changes undergone by the British cap-
ital during its transition toward a decentralized, postcolonial
polis. Following World War II, the economic, political, and ideo-
logical paradigms that had upheld London's status for several
centuries imploded within several decades. As imperial struc-
tures crumbled and the balance of world power shifted, a once
6 0 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
mighty metropolis was left in need of redefinition. By the 1980s
and 1990s, the shock of global transformations had taken its toll
on the rapidly changing city: the Thatcherite years were marked
by severe crises in a number of areas, including housing, labor
conditions, schooling, health care, transportation, and race rela-
tions. Roy Porter's 1995 social history of London portrays the
eighties as a time of deteriorating infrastructure and skyrocket-
ing unemployment figures, paired with the growth of an increas-
ingly alienated and deprived urban underclass. These changes
were accompanied by rising crime rates and massive social
unrest. Repeated incidents of council housing wars and citywide
rioting (Brixton and Southall in 1981, Brixton and Tottenham in
1985, the poll tax riots in the early 1990s) constituted, in the
words of Jerry White, "the most serious civil disturbances any-
where on the British mainland in this century" (76).
Against the backdrop of escalating urban crisis, the City, with
its stock exchange open to overseas members in 1986, continued
to flourish. The success of the City established the British capital
as one of the world's leading economic centers, creating an insu-
lar culture of consumerism and affluence. The spectacular rise of
London's new financial class provoked comparisons with the
struggles of the capital's underprivileged. Pointing to the
decade's dramatic rise in homelessness (from 16,579 households
in 1980 to 37,740 households and 65,000 single homeless in 1990),
Porter offers a vivid picture of London's economic disparities:
"Homelessness—eradicated by the mid twentieth century—
became endemic again during the Thatcher years. Swarms of
dossers and vagrants reappeared, cardboard cities sprouting in
the luxuriance of yuppie affluence" (372). The social inequalities
of the period lend an ironic dimension to the Thatcherite nos-
talgia for "Victorian" values, suggesting a series of dark paral-
lels—the growing culture of discipline and policing, the
reemergence of sweatshops in the wake of relaxed labor laws,
and the dramatic growth of the city's displaced populations—
between late-nineteenth- and late-twentieth-century London
absent from official government rhetoric (Humphries and Taylor
167). This destabilization of the capital's social order contributed
to a pervasive mood of anxiety, compounded by the widespread
M A C Z Y N S K A • 61
fears provoked by growing environmental damage and nuclear
proliferation. London writers of the 1980s and 1990s responded
to the unrest of the century's final decades with narratives that
break down textual boundaries, defy generic conventions, and
transform fictional ontologies—as if only such outrageous
reimagining of urban narrative and urban space could convey
the force of the city's millennial crisis.
A troubled metropolis breeds satirical discourse. "It's harder
not to be writing / satires; for who could endure this monstrous
city, however / callous at heart, and swallow his wrath?"
inquired Juvenal at the onset of the first millennium (4), articu-
lating for future centuries the critical relationship between the
satirist and the urbanité. The London satirical tradition, with lit-
erary chroniclers from William Langland to Will Self denouncing
the city's corruption and excesses from positions of moral out-
rage, journalistic scrupulousness, or morbid fascination, reaches
back to the fourteenth century. Its canon includes the narrative
poetry of Langland and Chaucer, the anonymous fifteenth-
century poems "London Lickpenny" and "Winner and Waster,"
classical satires of the Tudor era (Thomas Lodge, John Donne,
Edward Guilpin, Joseph Hall, John Marston), print-based urban
prose pamphlets of the same period (Lodge, Robert Greene,
Thomas Nashe, Thomas Dekker), eighteenth-century formal
verse satires (Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson), prose narratives
that established the novel as the dominant form of modern satir-
ical writing (Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Fran-
ces Burney), and their Victorian successors, most importantly the
socially engaged fiction of Charles Dickens. The rich, grotesque
storytelling of Dickens is a particularly important influence, as
it pushes the form of the realistic novel toward fantastic defor-
mation, effecting a blending of realism, fantasy, and satire that
anticipates the development of postrealist urban narrative at the
end of the twentieth century.
What distinguishes contemporary visionary satirical novels
from earlier iterations of London satire is their innovative merg-
ing of mimetic and nonmimetic fictional modalities. This creative
opposition to realism draws on the familiar subversive repertoire
of postmodernist writing, but also on a strong local tradition of
6 2 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
urban visionary fantasy developed and refined in the nineteenth-
century British metropolis. The modern London visionary imag-
ination, first fully articulated in the work of William Blake,
provides a counterpoint to urban realism by exploring the irra-
tional forces and subconscious tensions at work in the industri-
alized city. Following the consolidation of classical realism as the
dominant novelistic form in the mid-nineteenth century, London
witnessed a flourishing of fantastic urban writing: Oscar Wilde's
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1880), Robert Louis Stevenson's The
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Bram Stoker' s Dra-
cula (1897), and Arthur Machen' s The Great God Pan (1894), The
Hill of Dreams (1907), The Secret Glory (1922), and The Green Round
(1933). Theoreticians of the fantastic emphasize its subversive
character and its opposition to the rational materialism under-
pinning classical realist representation.^ Visionary satirical nov-
els of the 1980s and 1990s combine this nonrepresentational
stance of fantasy with the desire to expose and explore the crisis
of the contemporary capital: fantasy gives the satirist the power
of defamiliarization as well as epistemological and ontological
elasticity. The satirical and the fantastic modes share an oppo-
sitional and deeply ambiguous stance toward dominant cultural
discourses. The result of their coupling is a hybridized form of
urban writing that offers a felicitous surplus of textual economy:
while it incorporates multiple modalities, visionary satirical fic-
tion finally transcends the individual goals of the satirical and
the fantastic to produce a new, multimodal and multidimen-
sional experience of the fictional metropolis.
The contemporary emergence of London visionary satires is
attributable in part to the influence of international postmodern-
ist aesthetics, even if none of the authors examined here apply
that much-contested label to their own writing. Postmodernist
experimentation forwards the antirepresentational agenda of
fantasy, extending its foundational paradigm of epistemological
hesitation between the rational and the irrational (Todorov) onto
1. For discussions of fantasy from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, with par-
ticular emphasis on its subversive functions, see Ahearn, Brooke-Rose, Jackson, and Sie-
M A C Z Y N S K A • 63
other aspects of the narrative construct: ontology, characteriza-
tion, spatiotemporal structure, genre, et cetera (Brooke-Rose,
Hoffman, McHale). The novel, as pointed out by Mikhail Bakhtin
and many after him, is a mongrel thing to begin with; postmod-
ernist fiction takes this quality to its extreme through a conscious,
playful erasure of narrative conventions and generic divisions.
Underlying these developments in fictional form is the philo-
sophical shift away from positivist constructions of the real
toward more malleable and contingent ontological models—a
transition illustrated in Richard Lehan's meditation on the semi-
otic instability of postindustrial urban writing:
Urban activity becomes more abstract and "unreal" as power operates
from hidden sources. . . . Once we lose a transcendental signifier, the
totalizing process is called into question and the city turns into a place of
mystery: chance and the unexpected dominate, a romantic sense of the
uncanny becomes exaggerated, and the city takes on the meaning of pure
text, to be created by each individual and then read.
The postmodern sense that, to use Christine Brooke-Rose's for-
mulation, "the real has become unreal" (8) can be negotiated only
through a destabilized novelistic discourse, whose mimetic
ambitions address a far more mediated, language-based idea of
"reality" than that found in classical realist fiction.^ Nevertheless,
unlike the critical terms applied to late twentieth-century exper-
imental narratives in America (Robert Scholes's "fabulation,"
Raymond Federman's "surfiction," W. R. Irwin's "postrealistic
fiction," Gerhard Hoffman's "New Fiction"), terms denoting par-
allel developments in British writing (Marguerite Alexander's
"flights from realism," Richard Todd's "realism of excess,"
Elias's "postmodern realism") invariably contain the superseded
realist modality, underscoring British fiction's complex, often
paradoxical relationship with the mimetic imperative. Late-
twentieth-century visionary satire is one example of this com-
plexity, combining a penchant for fantastic distortions and
2. The emergence of postmodern mimetic structures in contemporary British fiction
has been examined by Alison Lee and Amy Elias.
6 4 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
iconoclastic deformations with a continuing commitment to rep-
resenting the end-of-millennium city.
An analysis of visionary satirical fiction's relationship with tra-
ditional realist conventions should begin with a list of classical
realism's defining features: (1) its use of objective and empirical
epistemological methods; (2) its choice of "low" subject matter;
(3) its seamless relationship with surrounding nonfictional dis-
courses; (4) its unobtrusive modes of narration and plot construc-
tion; (5) its focus on the external and internal complexity of
characters; and (6) the realist ontology of its fictional worlds. In
the fiction of Amis, Self, Miéville, and Gee, the discontents of
twentieth-century London are portrayed with great topographi-
cal and sociological accuracy. Characters are placed within a pre-
cisely defined social environment (the suburban middle classes,
working-class squatters, Junglists), in accordance with George J.
Becker's observation that "the ultimate subject of a realistic work
is a milieu" (64). Most protagonists are ordinary Londoners,
often inhabiting the city's cultural, economic, and social margins.
Visionary-satirical fiction also preserves a discursive continuity
with contemporary nonfictional modes of textual representation,
largely avoiding the violation of syntactic, stylistic, and topo-
graphical rules and striving to record current modes of colloquial
speech in the characters' dialogue. Finally, it incorporates jour-
nalistic headlines, television news reports, commercial flyers,
and newspaper clippings, with the goal of enhancing its mimetic
If Amis, Gee, Miéville, and Self follow realist principles in their
epistemology, themes, and discursive patterns, they radically
depart from classical convention in the areas of fictional ontol-
ogy, narration, and characterization. On the level of plot con-
struction, visionary-satirical fiction exhibits elaborate patterns,
nonlinear and fragmented structures, overt intertextuality, and
extensive use of prerealist narrative models (allegory, romance,
the picaresque). Its interest lies in violently spectacular events
rather than in the mundane rhythms favored by realist aesthetics.
(Most radically. Gee concludes her narrative with an apocalyptic
explosion that annihilates London altogether.) It is also inter-
M A C Z Y N S K A • 65
ested in such metafictional devices as authorial narrators and
author characters, especially favored by Martin Amis, or the
more subtle self-referential commentary found in Maggie Gee.
On the level of characterization, visionary-satirical novels feature
protagonists who are round, nuanced, and socially grounded,
but also hybrid (Miéville's Saul), internally divided (Amis's
Mary/Amy, Self's Simon), dead (Amis's Mary, Self's Lily, Gee's
floating voices of Hiroshima victims), or outright fantastic
(Mièville's King Rat, Anansi, and Loplop; Self's simian London-
ers). This playful cross-fertilization of realism and fantasy pro-
duces a satirical discourse that is both fully novelistic (unlike the
narrative satires of a Jonathan Swift) and "fantasized," in Hoff-
man's postmodern sense of the term (unlike the fictional satires
of an Evelyn Waugh).
The imprint of postrealist, postmodernist poetics and the
social crisis of the British capital provide twin, complementary
explanations for the development of visionary satirical fiction in
the 1980s and 1990s. Contemporary London satire's subversive,
irreverent character suggests one other important influence: the
countercultural tradition of twentieth-century metropolitan icon-
oclasm. Amis, Gee, Miéville, and Self's literary antics foUow^
eight decades of iconoclastic urban movements: since 1916,
Dadaists, Letterists, Situationists, psychogeographers, and their
disciples have been calling for the abolishment of traditional
urban structures and a creative reconfiguration of the imaginary
and physical metropolis. The Letterist International and Situa-
tionist International critique of commodity culture in the 1950s
and 1960s gave a special place to questions of the city: the rev-
olution called for in LI/SI writings was first and foremost an
urban revolution; the yearned-for transformation of everyday
life was primarily the transformation of urban space and urban
consciousness. Following the leads of Greil Marcus and Sadie
Plant, who drew the subterranean genealogy from Dadaism,
through the SI to punk, I propose that the visionary satires of
late-twentieth-century fiction can be inscribed within this sub-
versive imaginative tradition. Iconoclastic moods intensify at
certain points in history, fueled by political and economic crises.
6 6 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
the exhaustion of ideological paradigms, or the momentous sym-
bolism of the calendar. All these factors converged in the British
capital at the end of the second millennium.
In a recent Albert Hall conversation with Will Self and Kevin
Jackson, Iain Sinclair commented on the appeal of Situationist
thought in Thatcherite London: "[E]verything was being wiped
out, old values, so it became necessary to provoke the human
imagination. There were ways of resurrecting tools of resistance
and one of them, certainly, was the notion of psychogeography"
(qtd. in Barfield). Will Self confirms the importance of Sl-inspired
resistance in articulating his own artistic project: "But I think that
if there is a quest I'm looking for, it is how can we approach the
city, and particularly the power of walking and its destructive
ability to destroy the way we are meant to live in cities and the
way we're meant to perceive them and the way they're meant
to be for us" (qtd. in Barfield). Visionary satire offers precisely
such a subversive reimagining of urban space and perception,
by dismantling the familiar metropolis and imposing upon it
palimpsestic, alternative urban structures. This creative resis-
tance is actualized in texts that push past the boundaries of real-
ist representation to defamiliarize, deform, and transform the
modern city, as well as enact the construction (and deconstruc-
tion) of the contemporary urban subject.
The following sections examine six recent fictions that embody
the theoretical developments outlined above; the section head-
ings ("Necropolis," "Metamorphosis," "Apocalypse") point to
the narratives' grounding in ancient mythical and literary topoi,
now in fruitful dialogue with the (post)modern novelistic form.
Although grouped under the common label of visionary satire,
the novels employ divergent narrative strategies and offer dif-
fering combinations of satirical purpose, visionary fantasy, and
mimetic verisimilitude. The category of visionary-satirical fiction
is, thus, not meant to constitute a genre or subgenre in the rig-
orous sense deñned by Tzvetan Todorov in his discussion of "le
fantastique." Rather, my goal is to map a new field of conver-
gence among established narrative modalities, whose realign-
ment produces an innovative brand of contemporary fictional
subversion. The first section, focusing on Will Self's H o w t h e De ad
M A C Z Y N S K A • 67
Live and Martin Amis's Other People, offers an analysis of vision-
ary satire's textual strategies, including its uses of defamiliari-
zation, dream logic, and the uncanny, culminating in an
investigation of Self's and Amis's revisionary engagement with
the urban ethos oí flânerie. Briefer readings of the four remaining
novels (Self's Great Apes, Mièville's King Rat, Amis's London
Fields, and Gee's Burning Book) complement this discussion, pro-
viding additional examples of visionary satirical themes and
Lewis Mumford, in his seminal study The City in History, exam-
ines the connection between the origins of the city and the ear-
liest permanent burial sites developed by nomadic peoples.
Mumford's striking suggestion is that the first human cities
might have been modeled on such sites; hence "[T]he city of the
dead antedates the city of the living. In one sense, indeed, the
city of the dead is the forerunner, almost the core, of every living
city" (7). This proximity with the dead has haunted urban culture
throughout its historical development, from Egyptian catacombs
to contemporary horror movies. Modern European writing offers
a rich geography of ghostly cities: E. T. A. Hoffmann's Berlin,
Fyodor Dostoyevsky's St. Petersburg, Mikhail Bulgakov's Mos-
cow, the London of Charles Williams. The contemporary satires
of Will Self and Martin Amis inscribe themselves within this lit-
erary tradition, adopting the point of view of the dead to defam-
iliarize the city of the living.
How the Dead Live and Other People are based on a dual ontol-
ogy: the Londons they construct are both historically specific
physical loci and projections of the protagonists' minds. Self's
guiding intertext is The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which provides
the structural concept of a spectral metropolis generated by the
narrator Lily Bloom's disintegrating consciousness. Amis's tex-
tual models are two European visions of hell: Dante's Inferno and
Sartre's Huís Clos. The novel's heroine, Mary Lamb, alias Amy
Hyde, awakes from the dead in a London hospital ward and goes
on to discover an urban hell of her own making. The texts'
6 8 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
emphasis on the consciousness of deceased female characters
defamiliarizes the city on two levels: because Lily and Mary are
dead, and because they are women. This distancing use of point
of view (and, in the case of Self, narrative voice) produces an
uncanny urban topography, in which familiar London elements
appear uncomfortably enhanced, altered, or deformed but still
retain many of their recognizable qualities. Such reconfigura-
tions of urban landscape destabilize the reader's perception of
the contemporary metropolis, both strengthening the novels'
satirical impact and enabling an exploration of psychological
and philosophical anxieties that falls beyond the scope of tradi-
tional social satire.
Mary Lamb's mind at the beginning of Other People is a per-
fectly blank slate, the source of her purity as well as of her height-
ened perceptive powers. As a result, she is unnaturally attentive
to the experience of London space:
She can do some things that you can't do. Glance sideways down an
unknown street and what do you see: an aggregate of shapes, figures and
light, and the presence or absence of movement? Mary sees a window
and a face behind it, the grid of the paving stones and the rake of the
drainpipes, the way the distribution of the shadows answers the skyscape
A time-honored satirical device, Mary's naive point of view
allows a fresh insight into the city's familiar infrastructure. In
her eyes, the Underground acquires a chthonic fearfulness: "peo-
ple winched up and lowered down into the earth in steel cages
and speed-fed through the tunnels, with doors cracking shut
everywhere, and arctic winds mingling with dusty gasps of fire
from the planet's core" (67). London pubs are stripped of their
conventional conviviality: "The pub was a public house, one of
those rare places where you could go without being asked.
Appropriate care had therefore been taken to make things as
hard on the senses as possible—or else everybody would come
here, or else none of them would ever leave. There was a stale,
malty, sawdust heat, and an elusive device to hurt the ears" (39).
The same defamiliarizing gaze exposes other spaces of the mil-
lennial city: desiccated parks, violent streets, unwholesome food
M A C Z Y N S K A • 69
joints, corrupt police stations, homeless shelters, and deadening
suburbs. As the reader accompanies Mary/Amy on her journey
from innocence to experience, the city is gradually reconstructed
as a site of horrors, adding up to a fully articulated contemporary
The afterlife universe of Will Self's How the Dead Live focuses
on the physical and ideological landscape of London suburbia,
observed through the lens of Tibetan Buddhist eschatology. After
succumbing to breast cancer, Lily Bloom is escorted by a "death
guide" to the district of Dulston, where she is to reside in the
forty-nine-day period separating her death and reincarnation.
The neighborhood, with its labyrinthine architecture and flexible
time-space continuum, mimics the logic of bad dreams: "Dulston
is one of those districts you're always finding yourself lost in,
rather than arriving at. It's the place you wind up in when you
overshoot your destination or take the wrong turn. It's the 'burb
as displacement activity" (175). The district's otherworldly mor-
phology is emphasized by the name given to Dulston by Lily's
guide: "[I]t swells up, then it leaks, then it swells up again. It's
a cystrict" (174). Lily is quick to grasp the implications of this
moniker: "Dulston must be as big or small as its beholders. It's
a hidden pleat in the city's roUed-up sleeve" (175). This elusive
space is shared by the dead and the living; the latter perceive it
as "merely a drive-by span of inattention, a glimpse of their own
speeding car warped in a showroom window," unaware of the
neighborhood's ghastly ontology. A similar mingling of living
and dead Londoners takes place in the offices of the "death-
ocracy," which Lily is obligated to visit when applying for an
allowance or for reincarnation. Deathocracy centers, with their
obscure locations sprinkled throughout Greater London, rein-
scribe Franz Kafka's urban nightmares in a contemporary British
Lily Bloom's journeys through the barren landscape of Duls-
ton debunk the modern myth of a wholesome and verdant sub-
urbia. The eerie district traversed by the protagonist is but a
slightly exaggerated equivalent of familiar outer London neigh-
borhoods—its terraces "more warped," its council housing
"even littler," its shops "more run-down than ever" (167). Self
7 0 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
plays with the novel's central conceit of life-in-death to blur the
boundary between the protagonist's pre- and posthumous sub-
urban existence: "If you'd lived in Hendon in the sixties you'd
know what living death was like" (185), Lily pronounces,
emphasizing the "awful symmetry" between Hendon's "living
death" and the "deathly life" of Dulston (280). This equivalence
is part of the narrative's satire on what Robert Fishman calls "the
collective creation of the Anglo-American middle class: the bour-
geois Utopia" (x). Throughout How the Dead Live, Self develops
a sustained critique of the spatial and ideological structures of
twentieth-century suburban life, denouncing its failed commu-
nality, class isolationism, oppressive patriarchal regime, and
infantilizing consumerism through a playful exploration of fan-
tasized London topographies.
The failure of the modern ambition to "re-create a new con-
sciousness of something that had been lost in the rapid growth
of the city—the sense of the neighborhood" (Mumford, Culture
499) is epitomized in the bleak appearance of Dulston's com-
munity center, "a dead modernist building—flat roofed, grey-
concreted, blank-windowed—which was neither central nor
communal," situated between "a piece of waste ground . . .
where hulks of adventure-playground equipment were bound
in vetch and nettles" and "a derelict warehouse" (191). Far from
developing a new model of social cohesion. Self's suburb is
marked by a deadening combination of uniformity and socio-
economic alienation. The monotony of Dulston's infrastructure,
with its repetitive "clumps of houses, flats, commercial premises,
warehouses, used-car lots and light-industrial units" (175), is
echoed throughout the slightly posher district of Dulburb:
"every mile or so the houses pared away from a brief stretch of
dual carriageway and you found the same mouldering parade
of identical shops—the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, the
ironmonger—as you'd encountered a mile back" (278), culmi-
nating in the upscale neighborhood of Ennuyeuseville (whose
residents include the late Princess Diana). This repetition of
familiar architectural and socioeconomic patterns in the afterlife
city reinforces the ubiquity of the suburb's social paradigms,
lending urgency to the novel's satirical commentary.
M A C Z Y N S K A • 71
Self's denunciation of the suburban dream culminates in the
rejection of its core principles, the "primacy of the family and
domestic life" (Fishman 3) and the pursuit of consumerist plea-
sures, jointly critiqued by Lewis Mumford: "This was not merely
a child-centered environment: it was based on a childish view of
the world, in which reality was sacrificed to the pleasure prin-
ciple" (Culture 494). The domestic ideal is debunked through the
description of Lily's home at Argos Road 27, its "dank," "musty,"
and "mouldering" interior complete with the trappings of a
bygone era, including 1960s wallpaper covered with "bilious loz-
enges" and "a fucking meat safe" (177)—bad flashbacks to the
protagonist's Valium-laced days as a homemaker. Compounding
Lily's disgust at the banality of the middle-class lifestyle, the city
teems with infantile appetites: "It was summer in London, an
intensely sticky summer, when the childish gods the citizenry
worshipped seemed to have drenched the very fabric of the city
in Coca-Cola, dripped it with melting ice lollies, gummed it up
with old Wrigley's" (344-45). The evocation of familiar (Ameri-
can) corporate brands reinforces Self's underlying critique of late
capitalist culture and its insidious impact on the contemporary
urban environment. The novel's central synecdoche for capitalist
consumerism is the paper-goods emporium owned by Lily's
daughter Charlotte, with outlets strewn across the sprawling
suburban landscape, "in between Woolworth's and M&S, or in
between McDonald's and Barclays, or in between the NCP and
the war memorial" (262), and a brand name ("Waste of Paper")
unintentionally suggestive of tedium, futility, and excess.
Much of the novel's anticonsumerist satire depends on the
effect of the uncanny, offering both the dread of the unknown
(living dead Londoners, nightmarish neighborhoods) and the
mimetic pleasures of recognition. The boundaries between the
fantastic and the realist are tenuous, with deathocracy offices and
Personally Dead support-group meeting rooms fitting comfort-
ably into the recognizable urban infrastructure of shopping fran-
chises and corporate marketing headquarters. Although set
within a fantastic ontological frame, individual elements of the
city are altered only slightly, producing an unsettling sense of
disturbed familiarity. A similar method is at work in Martin
7 2 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
Amis's Other People, whose fantastic premise shapes the protag-
onist's defamiliarizing point of view but does not radically alter
the cityscape she inhabits. Throughout the narrative, the fantasy
is largely nonintrusive, and the mimetic illusion is more likely
to be broken by the authorial narrator's metafictional commen-
tary than by openly otherworldly interventions. Rather, the effect
of Amis's novel is achieved through an accretion of subtle exag-
gerations, building toward a vision of phantasmagoric bleak-
ness. The disquieting impact of Amis's and Self's narrative
strategies is further enhanced by the black humor of their nar-
rators, whose mixture of unflinching observation and dark
laughter underscores the satiric fervor of their implied authors.
The irreverently comic tone of Other People and How the Dead
Live is part of the novels' programmatic iconoclasm, drawing on
the postmodern tradition of playful seriousness to enact a cri-
tique of the millennial city. A central aspect of this critique is the
debunking of urban flânerie, whose contemporary breakdown
illustrates both the particular crisis of the late capitalist metrop-
olis and, more broadly, its problematic modern ideological foun-
dations. Amis's Mary and Self's Lily negotiate urban space
through the act of solitary walking. Like the Situationists, how-
ever. Amis and Self deflate the flaneur's romanticized image by
exposing its exclusionary underpinnings. The two dead women
traversing contemporary London are parodie variations on Wal-
ter Benjamin's "alienated man," who stands "at the margin, of
the great city as of the bourgeois class," to experience "the famil-
iar city as fantasmagoria" (Benjamin 1 7 0 ) . The flâneur is an aesth-
ete, an urban detective, a delighted stroller and window shopper;
Mary Lamb and Lily Bloom are tired, shabby females to whom
the city refuses to yield its delights. The maze of urban signs that
afforded such pleasure to the explorer of Parisian arcades is inac-
cessible to Amis's protagonist: "The streets were full of display,
of symbols whose meaning was coolly denied to her" (1 6) .
Mary's walks through South London reveal a devastated city-
scape, a "grid of ramshackle streets, eviscerated building-sites,
and the caged sections of high-wire concrete" (59) . Her rides on
the Tube provide a grim update to the flaneur's pedestrian per-
ambulations: "She rode the tubes, to and fro and round and
M A C Z Y N S K A • 73
round in the city's fuming entrails. She rode the Circle Line until,
on this new scale of time and distance, the Circle made her head
reel. And it never got her anywhere" (169). Mary's journeys
through the urban labyrinth afford her no pleasure. On the con-
trary, she is always under threat of becoming the object of some-
one else's enjoyment: as a young woman alone in the streets,
Mary is manipulated, abused, and repeatedly taken for a pros-
titute, confirming the impossibility of female flânerie postulated
by contemporary feminist criticism.^
Unlike the unencumbered male flâneur, whose identity is pred-
icated on the suppression of his own place in the city's socioeco-
nomic matrix, Mary is a participant in, rather than a consumer
of, the London she traverses. Her living arrangements include a
squat and the Church-Army Hostel for Young Women, popu-
lated by sex workers, addicts, and victims of domestic violence—
all of whom have "taken smashes recently" and are thus, in a
morbid echo of Victorian rhetoric, fallen women (70). She expe-
riences firsthand the mechanisms of police control and social
spacing that Zygmunt Bauman identifies as the enabling condi-
tions of the flaneur's aesthetic play* Far from exercising agency,
aesthetic or otherwise, Mary is one of the city's strangers, subject
to institutional regulation: "She rode in a van to a place where
you had to empty your pockets and your bag and submit to the
far-flung presence. They shut her for a night with a girl who kept
weeping and getting up to pee drillingly into the pot beneath
her bunk" (169). Mary's London is a "risk-area of clinks and
clinics and soup-queues, of hostels and borstals [reformatories]
and homes full of mad women" (106), and she herself, although
set apart by her otherworldly status, is also always on the inside,
never insulated from the city's horrible dangers. Even when her
manipulative benefactor Prince whisks her away from the streets
and into the shelter of suburbia, Mary experiences this "remote
3. The gendered character of the flâneur is addressed in the critical writings of Nord,
Walkowitz, and Wilson.
4. For Bauman's discussion of the production and management of social space, see
chapter 6 ("Social Spaces: Cognitive, Aesthetic, Moral") of his Postmodern Ethics.
7 4 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
arcadia, a pleasant, fallen world" (207) as an oppressive prison,
which ultimately becomes the site of her violent death.
Will Self's M rs. Bloom, a self-described "fat, old, bourgeois bag
lady, weighted down by a Barnes & Noble book bag full of sec-
ond-hand culture" (162) provides another variation on the theme
of the anti-flâneuse. She sees herself as one among many elderly
women walking the streets of London, "the pavement-strollers,
the window-shoppers, the bored, bunion-hobbled boulevardi-
ères," some of whom have already given up the world of the
living: "You look at the cityscape and see us tottering about in
our insupportable hosiery. Look again and realize that while
many of us are clinging on to the ledge of life, many more have
let go already" (2). Self's acerbic descriptions of London's zom-
bie grannies are a far cry from the heartbreaking charm of the
"petites vieilles" (little old ladies) celebrated by the poet-flaneur
Charles Baudelaire in his Tableaux Parisiennes—a selection of
urban poems added to the 18 61 edition of L es fleurs du m al. While
Baudelaire's elderly Parisians may carry "un petit sac brodé de
fleurs ou des rébus" (264) (a small purse embroidered with flow-
ers or rebuses). Self's aging Londoners are "tweed-wearers, the
bearers of the capacious gusset and the porters of the nylon bag"
(3 ). Lily's charmless city is made up of "terrace upon terrace of
knock-kneed, terminally warped Victorian townhouses, with
shitty council blocks sticking them apart" (166), lined up along
streets "blobbed with dog shit; spattered with chewed-up gum;
cluttered up with cars" (58 ) and punctuated by shopping
parades that are "parodies of commerce, every third window
boarded up and plastered with flyposters for pop and politics"
(166)—a distorted echo of Benjamin's delightful arcades. Her
half-hearted perambulations lead through "a Dickensian city of
snaking alleys and sunless courtyards, where the corroded bricks
oozed pigeon droppings, and indecorous ledges were blanketed
by sootfalls," with the occasional "wedges of modernity, ham-
mered into the creaking joints of the city, like plastic hips into
arthritic old women" (3 15). The deflating humor of Lily Bloom's
narration ridicules the nineteenth-century myth of aesthetic met-
ropolitan sensibility, while her macabre ontological status invites
reflection on the deadening routines of modern urban life.
M A C Z Y N S K A • 7 b
In How the Dead Live and Other People, Will Self and Martin
Amis manipulate the image of late-twentieth-century London
through the use of fantastic ontology, defamiliarizing point of
view, and comic debunking. Projected onto the structures of the
living city, their necropolises are slightly altered versions of the
familiar polis; the source of the novels' satirical power lies pre-
cisely within the space opened by that alteration. The figure of
the flâneuse manquee provides the perfect vehicle for the critique
of the contemporary capital, exposing the ideological limitations
of bourgeois urban myths and mapping urban space from alter-
native, playfully subversive positions. The final effect is an
uncanny, misaligned metropolis, macabre but darkly comical,
drawn with a satirical humor laced with existential dread.
The metropolis is a richly metamorphic locus: its structures are
in constant flux; its self-image is subject to ongoing renewal; its
citizens are granted endless opportunities for acquiring, shed-
ding, and shifting identities. In his classic defense of urban cul-
ture, Jonathan Raban contrasts urban plasticity with the stability
of rural and small-town life, emphasizing the city's protean
capacities: "The city, our great modern form, is soft, amenable to
a dazzling and libidinous variety of lives, dreams, interpreta-
tions" (15). Self's and Mièville's Londons are exactly such soft
cities, charged with powerful transformative potential, their
fluid nature signaled in the watery imagery of the novels' open-
ing scenes: Simon Dykes looking at the Thames as he contem-
plates his theory of perspectiveless vision in Great Apes; the
rodent king wading through the city's underground rivers in
King Rat. The promise of these aqueous beginnings is carried out
throughout both narratives, as the protagonists' metamorphoses
from human to animal makes accessible to them a new, nonan-
thropocentric vision of the metropolis.
Once Mièville's Saul finds out about his half-rodent nature, he
is shocked to discover that the London he now perceives is "infi-
nitely vaster than he had imagined, unknowable and furtive"
(61). Saul uncovers a hidden topography of sewers, back streets.
7 6 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
and secret passages that expands his limited human view of the
city. He escapes the symbolic power of Westminster Palace and
City skyscrapers to inhabit an underground metropolis that
defeats "the conspiracy of architecture, the tyranny by which the
buildings that men and women had built had taken control over
them, circumscribed their relations, confined their movements"
(288). Miéville's novel loosens the deadening grasp of familiarity
by redrawing the map of London to include alternative passage-
ways ("I can squeeze between buildings through spaces you
can't even see" [3]); alternative dimensions ("I climb above the
streets. All the dimensions of the city are open to me" [3]); and
directions ("up's no longer out of bounds, and down's nothing
to fear" [62]). This restructuring opens new possibilities for imag-
ining urban geography, freeing Saul from the rigid, hierarchical
order of the human metropolis that King Rat dismisses as a mere
facade: "All the main streets, the front rooms and the rest of it,
that's just filler, that's just chaff, that ain't the real city. You get to
that by the back door" (45^6).
The novel's privileging of the back-door perspective is appar-
ent in its attention to London's peripheries and liminal zones, to
the exclusion of the capital's historical monuments, tourist
attractions, and centers of political and financial power, heeding
Henri Lefebvre's warning that "any space . . . organized around
the monument is colonized and oppressed," because "great
monuments have been raised to glorify conquerors and the pow-
erful" (21). The novel's focus on marginal landscapes is already
apparent in the opening of the first chapter, as the train bearing
Saul toward his life-altering metamorphosis moves from the
north toward King's Cross: "In the depths below are lines of
small shops and obscure franchises, cafés with peeling paint and
businesses tucked into the arches over which the trains pass. The
colours and curves of graffiti mark every wall. . . . The rhythms
of London are played out here, in the sprawling flat zone
between suburbs and centre" (7 ). Once the protagonist abandons
his human identity to become King Rat's apprentice, he is taken
on a tour that leads through "deserted building sites and car
parks, down narrow passages masquerading as culs-de-sacs,"
across a London that "seemed made up of back-streets" (55). This
M A C Z Y N S K A • 77
fantasy of a centerless city serves as a counterbalance to the
power structures embodied in the architecture and topography
of the anthropocentric metropolis. Mièville's plot unfolds in the
city's shady parking lots, warehouses, train tracks, and back
alleys, rather than in the parks, circles, and landmarks that con-
stitute the official image of the British capital.
The novel's most important alternative locus is the urban
sewer system, which forms London's literal as well as meta-
phorical underground. The sewers, running parallel to over-
ground passageways and crossroads, are the city's mirror image
and dark alter ego. Peter Stallybrass and AUon White's analysis
of sewer imagery in the writings of Victorian reformers posits
the emergence of an "urban geography of the bourgeois Imagi-
nary" (126), in which the sewer rat becomes a figure of simul-
taneous repulsion and fascination: "[T]he rat, then, furtively
emerged from the city's underground conscience as the demon-
ized Other. But as it transgressed the boundaries that separated
the city from the sewer, above from below, it was a source of
fascination as well as horror" (143). Mièville's half-rat, half-
human protagonist likewise negotiates between the upper and
lower realms of London's imaginary structure. Like the reader,
he is both revolted and attracted by the urban subterranean land-
scape, with its secret channels and cargo of human refuse. As he
learns to master his disgust and navigate the labyrinth of the
sewers, Saul ultimately reconciles the binary structures of the
symbolic city by accepting the ambiguities of his hybrid citizen-
The alternative London uncovered in the course of Saul's jour-
ney not only transcends the limitations—epistemological and
topographical—of the city he had known as a man but also
becomes a site of urban reenchantment. Energized by his meta-
morphosis, the rat-man experiences a series of unlikely spiritual
epiphanies: "This was urban voodoo, fuelled by the sacrifices of
road deaths, of cats and people dying on the tarmac, an I Ching
of spilled and stolen groceries, a Cabbala of road signs. Saul
could feel King Rat watching him. He felt giddy with rude, sec-
ular energy" (120). Beyond the constraints of the human city,
with its deadening landscape and rigid power systems, lies an
7 8 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
alternative occult metropolis, charged with forces accessible
through the act of radical imaginative transformation. An aware-
ness of these forces alters the consciousness of the metropolitan
subject, allowing him to discover a vibrantly mutable London
beneath the regime of stale familiarity: "They wove in and out
of Central London, climbing, creeping, moving behind houses
and between them, over offices and under the streets. Magic had
entered Saul's life" (120). Miéville's exploration of the city's
subterranean energies pairs the subversive, transformative
impulse of Situationist play with the tradition of metamorphosis,
drawn from myth and literary fantasy, to open new ways of
experiencing, reading, and interpreting urban space.
Will Self's Great Apes, like Miéville's King Rat, projects an ani-
mal city onto the familiar contours of the human metropolis.
Self's protagonist, Simon Dykes, wakes up in an alternative uni-
verse where chimpanzees are the civilization-making species,
while the few remaining groups of Homo sapiens roam in the
wilderness. The ape city into w^hich Simon is thrust resembles
the one he had left behind in almost every respect, with the
exception of its diminished scale: "This spatial incongruity
infected everything around, buildings, other vehicles, the road
itself—all were small. And roving over this two-thirds set were
its dwarfish inhabitants" (223). The uncanny effect of this scaling
down is amplified by the protagonist's intimate recognition of
London's topographical and semiotic structures: "Everywhere
Simon directed his gaze he saw^ something familiar, a shop sign,
a petrol station decal, a peg-board menu in a café window. To be
confronted with such a mundane, familiar scene only served to
enhance the distortions which had been wrought upon it" (223).
The new city is both familiar and foreign—a strategy that allows
Self to explore the paradoxes of his protagonist's perception as
well as the satirical potential of the simian metropolis.
The centerpiece of the novel's social satire is the panoramic
canvas of Primrose Hill park, a public space that brings together
chimp Londoners from a variety of social and ethnic back-
grounds, from posh young mothers "wearing floral swelling-
protectors and vocalizing to one another with the extended
grunts of their class" to unemployed males, "swaggering, with
M A C Z Y N S K A • 79
erect fur poking up from the necks of their Fred Perry sports
shirts," and "sub-adults" "grouped around a large ghetto
blaster" (83-84). The force of Self's satirical vignettes is aug-
mented by the juxtaposition of humanlike clothing, indicating
the apes' socioeconomic status, and animal nakedness: "Simon
was struck anew by the absurd sight of furry little legs and flesh-
less arses poking out from the hems of pin-stripe jackets, denim
jackets, flowery blouses, and T-shirts blazoned with slogans"
(224). The effect of this juxtaposition is an obscene defamiliar-
ization that foregrounds both the absurdities of social norms and
the raw forces at work beneath the facade of urban civilization.
At their most extreme, these forces manifest themselves in scenes
of group copulation taking place openly in the city's public
spaces. A "middle-aged female—a bank worker judging by her
plain grey jacket and plainer white blouse" (289) takes on a
queue of males in the London underground; mating chimps form
"conga-lines of buggery" (290) in Oxford Circus: Self's simian
London abounds in similar scenes of Rabelaisian excess, offering
an outrageous alternative to the human urban landscape that
Simon Dykes has left behind in the course of his transformation.
A related interplay of familiar topography and exaggerated
physicality is found in the protagonist's artwork, which fore-
shadows and mirrors his metamorphosis. Simon's paintings
explore the violent disintegration of metropolitan bodies, depict-
ing "the safest and most urbanely dull of modern environments,
but subject to an horrific destructive force which shook, stirred,
and ultimately shredded their human cargo" (25). The grotesque
violence of Dykes's canvases—a fireball at King's Cross, a tidal
wave drowning the Stock Fxchange, an instant Fbola attack at
IKFA that leaves "the processing hordes of young newlyweds
purchasing flat-pack furniture liquefying, still hand-in-hand"
(25)—parallels the uncanny grotesqueness of the ape city.
Inspired by the apocalyptic paintings of John Martin and the
cinematic imagination of Fritz Lang, Simon's oeuvre expresses
his obsession with the body, human or simian, "constrained,
crushed and distorted by the pressures of modern, urban life"
(182). This emphasis on the physical is key to understanding the
construction of the city in Self's novel: like the rat capital of
8 0 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
Mièville's Saul, Simon Dykes's London can be understood only
as an embodied experience, a site where the body and its envi-
ronment enter into destructive and productive entanglements.
The libidinal ape city reinscribes Simon's apocalyptic anxieties,
replacing images of disintegration with images of physical
A pocalypse
The modern European apocalyptic imagination, while rooted in
biblical visions of the final events, has become increasingly sec-
ularized, reconceptualizing the end of the world as part of
human, rather than divine, history.^ This secularization of the
apocalypse is apparent in the literature of the last two centuries:
the prophetic writings of William Blake posit an immanent rather
than imminent concept of apocalyptic ending; Mary Shelley's
Last Man rejects the triumphalist idea of the Millennium; the sci-
ence fiction of H . G. Wells shifts the threat of apocalyptic destruc-
tion from divine to technological agents. Late-twentieth-century
fiction supplements these developments with the vision of a
man-made Armageddon made possible by the development and
proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Jacques Derrida's 1984 essay "No Apocalypse, Not Now" calls
for the recognition of nuclear arms' historical singularity: "the
critical zeal that leads us to recognize precedents, continuities
and repetitions at every turn can make us look like suicidal sleep-
walkers, blind and deaf alongside the unheard-of (21). The same
sense of urgency is found in the writing of Martin Amis and his
peers: in contrast to the postwar generation of British authors,
their successors—most notably Amis junior, Maggie Gee, Ian
McEwan, and Julian Barnes—show a deep preoccupation with
the problem of the atomic race. In the introduction to his 1987
collection Einstein's Monsters, Amis reflects on the specter of
nuclear threat present throughout his childhood years, examin-
ing its influence on his adult writing process. H e comes to agree
5. For mappings of the trajectory of the modern apocalyptic imagination, see Abrams,
Bull, and Enzensberger.
M A C Z Y N S K A • 81
with Jonathan Schell, whose 1982 classic The Fate of the Earth had
shaped his thinking on the subject, that the fear and anxiety
engendered by the prospect of global annihilation are already
manifestations of atomic warfare's destructive power: "What
w^e are experiencing, in as much as it can be experienced, is the
experience of nuclear war. Because the anticipation . . . the anxi-
ety, the suspense, is the only experience of nuclear war that
anyone is going to get" (22). An examination of the ways in
which cold war anxieties corrupt the urban environment, physi-
cal as well as psychological, is Amis's most interesting contri-
bution to twentieth-century literary engagements with nuclear
London Fields is a novel about a city in crisis. The escalation of
street violence, desiccation of urban nature, and abnormal
weather and human behavior patterns are all indirect conse-
quences of living in a nuclear world. This is an insidious apoc-
alypse, a slow but inevitable corruption of an environment
whose natural clock has been replaced by the atomic countdown.
The novel's self-destructive heroine Nicola Six remembers grow-
ing up in the shadow of the bomb: "On television at the age of
four she saw the warnings, and the circles of concentric devas-
tation, with London like a bull's-eye in the centre of the board.
She knew that would happen, too. It was just a matter of time"
(16). This scene, reminiscent of Amis's own childhood recollec-
tions, establishes the novel's ominous sense of timing. Nicola's
imaginary London like her self-destructive life narrative, is
always already marked by the knowledge of impending destruc-
tion, making apocalyptic teleology the governing structural logic
of Amis's narrative.
The nuclear city of London Fields is riddled with intimations of
violence, from mysterious jet planes disturbing Londoners' quo-
tidian activities to a series of catastrophic rumors reminiscent of
the Book of Revelation: an "Apollo object, ripped loose from the
asteroid belt" is "heading toward us at ten miles per second"
(117); a "unique configuration of earth, moon and sun" will bring
about "hemispherical flooding," "sunquakes," and "superbolt
lightening" (118); a "nearby supernova" will "drench the planet
in cosmic rays, causing another Creat Extinction" (118). The
8 2 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
omnipresent sense of threat poisons the minds of the city's
inhabitants. The sensitive dreamer Guy Clinch finds himself
reading an editorial on "The Effects of Thermonuclear Detona-
tions" and visualizing the stages of the catastrophe in the com-
fort of his opulent home: "So the first event would be light-speed.
A world become like a pale sun. . .. The next event would come
rather faster than the speed of sound, faster than the noise, the
strident thunder, the heavensplitting vociferation of fission. . . .
Everything that faced the window would turn to fire: the
checked curtains, this newspaper" (276). The novel's antagonist
Keith Talent concretizes the diffuse anxieties of the end-times
through repeated acts of domestic aggression. Most spectacu-
larly, the novel's femme fatale Nicola actively seeks her own
destruction by singling out and seducing men with the potential
to become her murderers.
The city as a whole shares in the malaise of its individual
protagonists. The capital's physical structure bears marks of
ongoing abuse: its streets are filthy, its pubs defaced, its parks
brutalized and filled with dog shit. Iconic London phone booths,
reduced to "glass ruins," serve as "urinals, as shelters from the
rain, and as job-center clearing-houses for freelance prostitutes
and their clients" (94). More frighteningly, urban violence
reduces its human victims to the status of inanimate objects:
"[VJandalism had moved on to the human form. People now
treated themselves like telephone boxes, ripping out the innards
and throwing them aw^ay, and plastering their surfaces w^ith sex-
signs and graffiti" (94). These acts of desecration are presided
over by an ailing, overheated nature: the sky tinged pink "like
something bad, something high" (391), the clouds "behaving so
strangely" (95), the sun shining "like a nuclear detonation" (365).
Amis's London is sick with an anxiety that gradually contami-
nates the city, precipitating its undoing long before the awaited
act of final destruction.
While Amis stops short of imagining the nuclear event itself,
Maggie Gee's T he Burning Book makes an attempt at representing
the unrepresentable: the text ends with an explosion that tears
apart the city as well as the narrative, leaving behind an aporia
of empty, darkened pages. Throughout Gee's novel, the metrop-
M A C Z Y N S K A • 83
olis is affected by the impending catastrophe in ways that par-
allel Amis's London Fields, with both London's natural
environment and its inhabitants crushed under the weight of
millennial dread. The crisis manifests itself in the form of an
unbearable summer heat wave: "The city was boiling hot, and
no air came in from outside. Every factory in London was burn-
ing its engines, running on throbbing heat. There wasn't any
oxygen any more; they were breathing fumes of poison" (224).
Positioned between the unforgivable destruction of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki and its own apocalyptic ending. Gee's end-of-
millennium London is a haunted metropolis. The municipal
buses and trains are filled with dark rumors and voices, snippets
of anxious conversations that disclose nothing but the fear that
drives them. More radically, the streets are invaded by the face-
less ghosts of nuclear victims, whose unspeakable suffering vio-
lates the decorum of the city:
The screams seem unwritable, hkewise, and they demand to come in. It
is hardly the thing, I think, to be heard in a family play. But thousands of
voices are crying. They scratch the pane like birds.
Like pigeons in a lost grey square. The buildings they cling to are life-
less. The bright tours of summer are gone. They scratch at a pane with
no faces. But the truth is, yes, we are here.
The truth of nuclear violence will not be denied. The broken
people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeal to the people of
London: "Hibakusha, queuing and pleading—for jobs and money
and help. Even worse, they beg us to see them. They can't imag-
ine our terror" (21). The haunting presence of the Hibakusha
("explosion-affected people," a Japanese term for the victims of
atomic attacks) is an embodiment of both historical guilt and
anxiety about the future. Gee forces her readers to confront the
concrete, physical reality of nuclear threat by inscribing the Brit-
ish capital into the modern narrative of urban destruction.
Gee's protagonist, Angela Ship, experiences the horror of her
times on an immediate, visceral level: "She felt swallowed up by
things, by the sticky heat and the grey. The newspapers seemed
to grow larger, insistent, the News blared out all day. She woke
8 4 • C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E
in a sweat every morning, too early, brain buzzing with worry"
(225). Angela's bodily response goes back to her first schoolgirl
encounter with the nuclear history of the twentieth century,
when, upon learning about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she felt a
"vague dull ache" that "settled over her life like a headache,"
never to leave again (232). The Burning Book focuses on history
as experienced in the human body: the pain of Hiroshima vic-
tims, the deformities of the survivors, the elusive guilt and fear
experienced by the novel's late-twentieth-century London sub-
jects, the brutality of the terminal event toward which the nar-
rative, like Amis's London Fields, is inexorably oriented. The
moment of Angela's death explodes the limits of her physical
self together with the limits of language, emphasizing the pow-
erlessness of cultural discourses in face of total annihilation: " H er
hair was a burning bush, but her body crackled like pork. They
would find that all hair burned, and that metaphor is a lie" (39).
The city, an icon of human culture, is also consumed in the final
conflagration. Gee's narrative offers the most radical version of
visionary urban satire, not only probing and bending linguistic
and ontological structures, but also daring to imagine the oblit-
eration of the fictional metropolis.
Apocalypse, metamorphosis, city of the dead—London narra-
tives of the late twentieth century combine traditional literary
topoi with contemporary historical anxieties, forcing old mate-
rial into unexpected configurations. The form of the novel itself
becomes transformed, as the realist formula expands to accom-
modate elements of fantastic vision and satirical subversion. This
freedom to create new structures is a time-honored privilege of
novelistic discourse; urban fiction of the 1980s and 1990s is par-
ticularly well-positioned to participate in this heterogeneous
heritage. The philosophical and artistic developments of post-
modernity have shaken old generic certainties, opening narra-
tives toward bold structural and ontological experimentation.
The character of the global city itself encourages the develop-
ment of flexible, multifaceted textual formulas. Finally, the twen-
tieth-century tradition of cultural subversion promotes formal
M A C Z Y N S K A • 85
and conceptual iconoclasm. Shaped by those various but con-
vergent forces, the fictions of Martin Amis, Maggie Gee, China
Miéville, and Will Self offer visionary, darkly satirical represen-
tations of the British capital torn by millennial crisis.
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