Lick an ashtray and wash it down with some hamburger grease and scotch. Grab a porn magazine. You’re now ready to join the world of John Self. No thanks? I said the same thing too, initially, but Martin Amis’s novel rewarded my persistence.
At around page 80, I was experiencing doubts about finishing this book*. So far, TV ad man and soon-to-be Hollywood film director John Self had belched, guzzled, punched, bragged and leered his way across New York and London. It was clear that John was not going to give up alcohol, fast food, nicotine, porn, brawling, or twisted relationships with women. He had interrupted his darkly funny observations and bouts of self-awareness with macho bragging, angry rants, misogynist fantasies, alcoholic denial and self-pity.
I found myself asking, “Do I really want to follow John Self for another 314 pages as he staggers along his self-destructive path from hotel to bar to strip joint to brothel to business lunch to aeroplane and back again?” John’s pockets are full of credit cards but he’s got nothing rattling around his head except porn and money. If he weren’t funny and pitiable, he’d be unbearable. I persisted on the strength of the dark comedy and Martin Amis’s reputation as one of the best writers of his generation.
Although Martin Amis’s novel has morbid humour and something to say about how too little or too much money destroys people, during those early sections I longed to escape the confines of John Self’s hotel room and his tape-loop mind for the sprawling universe of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Both novels are satires about the 1980s and share a certain machismo and manic energy, but Wolfe’s state-of-the-nation, state-of-the-decade story takes place on a huge, Hieronymus Bosch canvas. Sometimes Bonfire of the Vanities over-reaches itself but its horizon is bigger.
Gradually, however, Money opens out. We learn about John’s childhood and relationship with his father, which elicits pity, and the cast of characters expands. At the same time, an anonymous stalker keeps calling John and criticising his every move. Is John going to be rubbed out by a former business partner or girlfriend? Is the crank caller the novelist? Is it John’s conscience, emerging between drinking bouts? Is it a conspirator?
Meanwhile, there’s the manic, grubby brilliance of the prose. Occasionally, ‘John’ steps out of character to describe something with improbable sensitivity, but mostly he’s rat-tat-tatting out the frenetic energy of money in between puffs on his cigarette.
“I strode through meat-eating genies of subway breath. I heard the ragged hoot of sirens, the whistles of two-wheelers and skateboarders, pogoists, gocarters, windsurfers. I saw the barrelling cars and cabs, shoved on by the power of their horns. I felt all the contention, the democracy, all the italics, in the air. These are people determined to be themselves, whatever, little shame attaching. Urged out from the line of shufflers and idlers, watchers, pavement men, a big blond screamer flailed at the kerb, denouncing all traffic. His hair was that special mad yellow, like an omelette, a rug omelette. As he shadowboxed he loosely babbled of fraud and betrayal, redundancy, eviction. ‘It’s my money and I want it!’ he said. ‘I want my money and I want it now!’ The city is full of these guys, these guys and doll who bawl and holler and weep about bad luck all the hours there are.”
Martin Amis, Money
John’s diet of booze, nicotine, grease and porn is so viscerally described that I felt as though I should take a shower and go on a juice fast. John’s habits are also used, though, to good comic effect.
“Half way through my synopsis the cork of nausea abruptly popped in my throat. I only just made it to the adjacent can, which was large and acoustical: my imitation of an exploding hippopotamus came through the closed door in full quadrophonic (as Fielding later explained). I got one or two funny glances on my return, but I just butched it out and I don’t think it did me any harm.”
Martin Amis, Money
The Hollywood scenes rekindled my memories of Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 satire about Hollywood and the funeral business, The Loved One (and in a perverse act of homage on Amis’s part, Waugh’s Hollywood star Juanita del Pablo is reborn in Money as a porn star—did anyone else notice?). The funniest scenes, to me, were the ones with the Hollywood actors making ridiculous demands and when novelist Martin Amis makes cameo appearances in his own book.
“Fielding, of course, had heard of Martin Amis – he hadn’t read his stuff, but there’d recently been some cases of plagiarism, of text-theft, which had filtered down to the newspapers and magazines. So, I thought. Little Martin got caught with his fingers in the till, then, did he. A word criminal. I would bear that in mind.”
Martin Amis, Money
When Martin tries to explain his theories about writing and his artistic concerns to John (a man who never reads), John’s mind wanders off to his usual concerns: sex, booze, the cost of repairs to his car and rotten tooth and what his girlfriend is prepared to do for money.
Money. For the last fifty pages of the book, it takes John for all he’s worth, and takes us on a demented cab ride through dark streets with a madman at the wheel. I felt a bit grubby when I got out of the sticky back seat, but there was a kind of redemption at the end of the journey, and I was surprisingly glad I’d gone along for the ride.
*I made the mistake of referring to 1,000 Books You Must Read Before You Die to see what made Money unmissable. Don’t do it; it gives away the plot completely. I try not to do that sort of thing to you, dear reader.