April 22, 2013
Martin Amis: Money
It’s a good idea, I think, to revisit favourite books from time to time and see how they are faring, how you and they measure up against one another. I did it last year with Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. Martin Amis’s 1984 novel Money, probably his most highly-praised, has pleased me so much in the past that, more than a decade ago, I used its narrator’s name for my own online identity and have been stuck with it ever since. Vladimir Nabokov, a literary hero of Amis’s, said that “one cannot read a book; one can only reread it.” And furthermore, that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” This is, he said, because a first reading is consumed with the “complicated physical work upon the book”; only with rereading does a book penetrate directly to the mind. I first read Money in 1995, having felt ambivalent about previous Amises – The Rachel Papers and Success – but it didn’t take me long to realise that if the word “breakthrough” meant anything in literary terms, this was one. (Geekish sidenote: I’ve read Money a couple of times since, but what prompted this re-read was the type being reset for the first time since its original publication. This, perhaps madly, was important to me because I always have a strong visual memory when reading a book of where particular phrases or scenes appear on the physical page. Furthermore – bear with me – I feel that rereading a book with all the words laid out in the same way as before will somehow deaden the reading, and stop me from seeing the book in a new way. I hope that that is not a unique experience: or if it is, what the hell.) The new typesetting of this Vintage Classics (at last!) edition of Money gave me a good reason to go back to it. The cover to this edition of a book about a 1980s advertising executive is, suitably, by Saatchi & Saatchi.
Money is a novel of pairings and extremes. This is common in Amis’s work: he is a “broad and comic writer” and describes - or at least reclaims the criticism of – his work as dealing in “banalities delivered with tremendous force.” The pairings are obvious in novels like Success – two brothers, one successful, one not – or The Information – two writers, one successful, one not. But they are there too less brashly (well, a little less brashly) in the underrated Night Train – Jennifer Rockwell and Mike Hoolihan, opposites drawn together – and House of Meetings – the brothers in the Gulag. Pairings enable Amis to highlight differences by contrast – a useful illuminatory tool when there isn’t much brightness in the worlds he creates. There are more pairings in Money than perhaps in any other Amis novel: John Self and his creator Martin Amis (who appears in the novel); John Self and his younger, fitter, happier business partner Fielding Goodney; Martin Amis and his New York counterpart Martina Twain – both mentors of John Self in their ways; the pairs of male and female actors in Self’s film; and other pairings which don’t become clear until the end.
John Self is an ad-man who is making a feature film to be titled either Good Money or Bad Money (the money men can’t quite agree). He flies between London and New York and each long chapter describes a trip to one or other city. Self is “200 pounds of yob genes, booze, snout and fast food”, driven by desires: for the fast food, the booze, the snout (“‘Yeah,’ I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically tell you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette”), for pornography. He is “addicted to the twentieth century.” Self is a great success – money is drawn to him – and a terrible failure. His jetsetting life means that he never feels at home. He wakes up each morning feeling worse and worse (“Refreshed by a brief blackout…”). Before he left London, he was told that his girlfriend, Selina Street, was cheating on him. And who can blame her? After all, he wants to cheat on her. “I can never find anyone to be unfaithful to her with. They don’t want what I have to offer. They want commitment and candour and sympathy and trust and all the other things I seem to be really short of.” He’s violent. “It’s hard. It’s quite a step, particularly the first time. After that, though, it just gets easier and easier. After a while, hitting women is like rolling off a log.” He goes to strip joints. “The chicks on the ramp provided some variety. None of them wore any pants. At first I assumed that they got paid a lot more for this. Looking at the state of the place, though, and at the state of the chicks, I ended up deciding that they got paid a lot less.”
You can see what Amis is doing here. “A broad and comic writer.” Jokes and fizzy phrases are the holy grail and nothing is off-limits, not even domestic violence (elsewhere in the book, Self tries to rape Selina). Is this OK? Maybe so, as Self clearly is a really terrible person – yet there is also an attempt to make us empathise with him. Maybe this is OK too: after all, Humbert Humbert rapes twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, but by the end of Lolita he is, to me, a sympathetic, or at least pitiable, character. Amis himself, in this fascinating interview with (the?) Patrick McGrath in 1985, makes it clear that he “always adored him.” Self does at least have some insight into his condition. On the one hand, he misreads his reader: “Look at my life. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: It’s terrific! It’s great! You’re thinking: Some guys have all the luck!” But, he confides to us: “I long to burst out of the world of money and into – into what? Into the world of thought and fascination. How do I get there? Tell me, please. I’ll never make it by myself. I just don’t know the way.” He shows impatience with the qualities that make him what he is:
Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by, not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror. It’s passing, yet I’m the one who is doing all the moving. I’m not the station, I’m not the stop: I’m the train. I’m the train.
Self gets some help with this from Martina Twain in New York, and from Martin Amis in London. Amis (“his face is cramped and incredulous”) appears as a character in the book: “a writer lives around my way … This writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?” This Self-indulgence is reportedly the moment in Money which caused Kingsley Amis to throw the book across the room, though that may be no more literally true than the story that after a certain age, Amis Sr would not read any book that didn’t begin “A shot rang out.” Martin Amis the character helps distance the author from the narrator. Martina Twain, like Martin Amis the author, takes on the role of reforming, and re-forming, John Self. His enthusiasm for going on a date with her (he is still trying hard to be unfaithful to Selina) means she can get him to try new things, like reading Animal Farm. (“What the fuck are popholes?”) Martina, in contrast to Selina, has had money all her life, and her power for Self is indivisible from this.
Money is everything to John Self. He is the poster-child for the ‘me decade’. That term, commonly associated with the 1980s, was coined in 1976 by Tom Wolfe, who went on to write that other great novel of 1980s money-men, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Money is set in 1981, and, like American Psycho published ten years later, it seems not so much a summation as a prediction. Books like these, cultural touchstones, help with the neat reduction of decades to one quality. In the 1980s UK of the book, money is a cushion, the only difference between happiness and misery. Men control it (“I am in a cab, going somewhere, directing things with money”); women are at the other end of it, paid, exploited, unaware. Often the relationship is defined in pornography. Self watches a film in a “porno emporium” – these are the days before the internet, before home videos even, made solitary pastimes more efficient – featuring a porn starlet named Juanita del Pablo and a nameless hunk. “By the time he was through, Juanita looked like the patsy in the custard-pie joke, which I suppose is what she was. The camera proudly lingered as she spat and blinked and coughed … Hard to tell, really, who was the biggest loser in this transaction – her, him, them, me.” Even Self’s stepmother, Vron, is “proud” of her appearance in what in those days was referred to as a jazz mag, “crouched over a flat mirror.” When he is looking at such magazines in a sex shop, a girl approaches him. “‘Why aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ ‘But I am,’ I said.”
Money is a novel of extremes, with everything at its end-point, the streets populated with the madmen, the damaged, the motiveless: the moneyless. The notion of things never having been worse than they are now is always popular, and Amis interrogated it relentlessly in Money and some of the books that followed: Einstein’s Monsters (1987: nuclear armageddon), London Fields (1989: millennial environmental catastrophe), even, in a minor key, The Information (1995: intimations of mortality, the absurdity of the human project in the universe). Money, too, is a novel of great ugliness described with surprising beauty. It’s all in Amis’s shiny, hyperpolished, superprecise sound, full of lists and pairings (“in smiting light and island rain”, “tears of barbaric nausea”), variations and combinations (“blowjob knowhow”), repetition (“Fear walks tall on this planet. Fear walks big and fat and fine”) and comic brand names (cars called the Culprit, the Autocrat, the Boomerang, the Fiasco). The language is full of hardworking words like “heft” and “twang,” both of which recur throughout the book – indeed, heft and twang is a pretty good description of Amis’s high style. He likes his ellipses too – “I don’t know what it’s like to write a poem. I don’t know what it’s like to read one either…” – which to me seem a little like an author laughing at his own jokes, a mumbled exclamation mark. Self addresses the reader, too, involves us and claims our sympathy.
After all we are only human beings down here and we could do with a lot more praise and comfort than we actually get. Earthly reassurance – it’s in permanently short supply, don’t you think? Be honest, brother. Lady, now tell the truth. When was the last time a fellow-Earther let you rest your head on their heart, caressed your cheek, and said things designed to make you feel deeply okay? It doesn’t happen often enough, does it. We’d all like it to happen a lot more often than it does. Can’t we do a deal? Oh boy (I bet you’re thinking), that head-on-heart stuff, whew, could I use a little of that.
Here is a book built out of language. A friend once observed (speaking about The Information, but it’s as true for Money) that where some authors make you stop and note something every few pages, with Amis it happens every few lines. Its intensity, its volume, its full-throated technicolor charge should be maddening and tiresome, but instead it’s energising: it transmits its own energy, generates its own electricity. Self, of course, is a slob and a yob, yet his narrative is sparkily eloquent. Amis said he made this work – and it does – by distinguishing between Self’s thoughts (pearls) and his dialogue (drivel). To paraphrase Nabokov, he thinks like a genius and talks like a child. Within the thickets of the language there is a plot, but it is twined in with the talk and the repetition so thoroughly that it doesn’t seem like a plot so much as a life. There is a delayed script, woe with Selina and Martina, trouble with Fielding and Frank the Phone (an anonymous voice who calls up Self to threaten him, and provides a counterpoint view of his behaviour), and tussles with arrogant actors which provide many of the book’s best sustained comic riffs, like the one where Self tries to persuade humourless leading man Spunk Davis to change his name.
“The thing is,” I said, “in England it means something else.”
“Sure. It means grit, pluck, courage.”
“True. But it also means something else.”
“Sure. It means fight. Guts. Balls.”
“True. But it also means something else.”
Amis was never a great plotter, but there is development as the book rolls on. Indeed, there is a sense of an ending from about three-quarters of the way through, which gives us one hundred or more pages of coming to a halt: everything moves so fast that it needs this much stopping distance. When Self appears to begin to settle down, he starts exercising, no longer drinks – well, no longer drinks all the time – but the balance of things always comes as a surprise, and only too late does he discover that when everything else starts to go right in his life, that money – oldest stalwart, truest friend – might start to go wrong. Even the language and imagery become more tender:
And in the morning, as I awoke, Christ (and don’t laugh – no, don’t laugh), I felt like a flower: a little parched, of course, a little gone in the neck, and with no real life to come, perhaps, only sham life, bowl life, easing its petals and lifting its head to start feeding on the day.
When I finished reading Money this time, I felt a little lost afterwards, having lived in such a rich world for such a long time. Who has more fun than we do? You could say, rightly, that Money speaks almost as much to the financial times of today as it did to the 1980s (“If we all downed tools and joined hands for ten minutes and stopped believing in money, then money will no longer exist”), but that’s because it’s so alive in language that it will outlive us all. And no idiot will ever claim that Amis, Money-man for thirty years now, is famous for the wrong book. He has long been fond of saying that the only measure of success a writer should worry about (“there’s only one value judgement in literature: time“) is whether they’re still being read in fifty years. Well, Martin, you’re three-fifths of the way there: more, if you count the earlier books. Cut yourself some slack. You’ve earned it.