I found out fairly quickly that “John Self” was a nom-de-net, but a gaping hole in my own reading meant that it was some months before I realized that the alias had actually been drawn from Martin Amis’ Money. My relationship with Amis runs hot and cold — we are virtually the same age and I’d read a number of his early novels (The Rachel Papers and London Fields come quickly to mind) but I had somehow missed this 1984 novel. I’ll admit that I have been much less interested in Amis’ more recent non-fiction work and there is a part of me that wonders if he is now not a lot more interested in being Amis the character rather than Amis the novelist. With a new novel (The Pregnant Widow) due out next year (after a couple of years of delays), I marked Money down as a suitable book for a year-end read, both to discover the fictional John Self and remind myself what the 35-year-old Amis was producing.
While I am glad that I made the journey, allow me to jump to my overriding conclusion: Money, for this reader at least, has not aged very well. There are certainly some interesting reminders of 1980s but Amis’ wit and satire (“shocking, funny and on-target portraits of life in the fast lane” is the back cover description) seem dated and overdrawn to the point of being merely crude, at least to this contemporary reader.
The John Self of the book is a 35-year-old London-based producer of edgy television advertising who is about the break into the movie world as a director with his first feature film, to be called either “Bad Money” or “Good Money” — he and his American producer haven’t quite decided yet. Actually all they have is John’s concept and producer Fielding Goodney’s apparent access to investor money. Getting “stars” and a script occupies much of the action in this narrative stream in the novel — it is a tease, not a spoiler, to say that novelist Martin Amis eventually appears in the book as a script rewriter.
John drinks (a lot), eats fast food (a lot) and obsesses about sex (more than a lot). He is in a long-term relationship (well, more than a few months at least) but that doesn’t assuage that last obsession:
Everything was on offer outside. Boylesk, assisted showers, live sex, a we-never-close porn emporium bristling in its static. They even had the real thing out there, in prostitute form. But I wasn’t buying, not tonight. I walked back to the hotel without incident. Nothing happened. It never does, but it will.
It definitely does. John has another obsession, that his girl, Selina Street, is having an ongoing affair, probably produced by the childhood sexual abuse that formed her character:
It must be tiring knowledge, the realization that half the members of the planet, one on one, can do what the hell they like with you.
And it must be extra tough on a girl like Selina, whose appearance, after many hours at the mirror, is a fifty-fifty compromise between the primly juvenile and the grossly provocative. Her tastes are strictly High Street too, with frank promise of brothelly knowhow and top-dollar underwear. I’ve followed Selina down the strip, when we’re shopping, say, and she strolls on ahead, wearing sawn-off jeans and a wash-withered T-shirt, or a frilly frock measuring the brink of her russety thighs, or a transparent coating of gossamer, like a condom, or an abbreviated school uniform…The men wince and watch, wince and watch.
As the title states, the unifying theme to all this is “money” — to make the movie, to finance the booze and travel, to purchase (or help obtain) the sex. John bounces back and forth between London and New York, while also bouncing between all the concerns that his obsessions (including making the movie) produce, but the one constant is the money — at this stage, mainly spending, but with the promise of also obtaining.
All of this creates the opportunity for the novelist of a wealth of set pieces where he can take aim at people with (or without) money, the relationship between money and sex, the consumerism (or lack thereof) that money permits. The jacket calls this a “frightening picture of Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s England” but for me at least that is a major, major stretch — while Prince Charles and Diana figure in the book (the action is set in the summer of their marriage), the political leaders do not. I’d say that if you were looking for an over-arching theme (beyond money and what it, or the lack of it, does) it would be an exploration of what the era of the permissive sixties has produced a decade and a half down the road. As can be expected of Amis, it is not a pretty picture.
I expect this novel would have landed better with me if I had read it when it was published — it might even land better with me now if I had not lived through that era myself. Unfortunately, as it was, John’s excesses become increasingly tiresome and even some clever plot work towards the end fails to brighten the novel up. I couldn’t help but wonder as I read the book that sometimes edgy writing and satire begins the process of shrinking at the same rate and timing as the circumstances that produced it. Perhaps Amis was just too timely in this work. Or the blogging John Self can explain to me how I totally miss the point of novel narrator John Self.
I still intend to read the new novel and, as a result of reading Money, will approach it with even more curiousity. Amis’ frequent ventures into controversy have kept his name and reputation at the centre of attention — I’ll be interested in what the now 60-year-old novelist has to say in this new work.