- This Monstrous City:Urban Visionary Satire in the Fiction of Martin Amis, Will Self, China Miéville, and Maggie Gee
From 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 environments. 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 iconoclastic, satirical critique of the contemporary metropolis.
The twinned impulse toward satire and fantastic vision is discernible 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 contemporary necropolis, drawing on Dante, William Blake, Jean-Paul [End Page 58] 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 consciousness has been radically altered, resulting in parallel alterations 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 suburbs 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 perspective 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 fiction reflects the turbulent changes undergone by the British capital during its transition toward a decentralized, postcolonial polis. Following World War II, the economic, political, and ideological paradigms that had upheld London's status for several centuries imploded within several decades. As imperial structures crumbled and the balance of world power shifted, a once [End Page 59] 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 relations. Roy Porter's 1995 social history of London portrays the eighties as a time of deteriorating infrastructure and...