Blog Tribute #2, The Asylum: Money, by Martin Amis


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I first came across book blogger John Self on the 2008 Man Booker forum — I’d only just begun exploring the net for book comments and that was one of my first stops. We seemed to have a significant overlap of common interests, I learned a lot from his perceptive comments and was even more impressed when I started visiting his site, The Asylum. It quickly became a regular stop for me and when I contemplated starting this blog, John’s approach served as a model for what I hoped to accomplish. John is a new father and has put the Asylum on “break” for a while but don’t let that stop you from visiting — there is a wealth of content in the archives and you will soon discover that his reviews provoke some of the most interesting and informative content exchanges that you can find anywhere.

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.

11 Responses to “Blog Tribute #2, The Asylum: Money, by Martin Amis”

  1. Colette Jones Says:

    Well, perhaps you will be relieved to hear that the “real” John Self is not similar at all to the fictional John Self, though you may have figured that out.

    I enjoyed Money – I think it was my first Amis. I did find some of it confusing – some things are said which don’t seem to have any explanation. I remember at some point it being suggested to John Self that he check with his mother about something – but I’m pretty sure there was no hint anywhere why this might be. I do get a bit frustrated with things that are thrown in which can’t be explained at all, but overall I liked the book.


  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I read a lot of Amis back in the ’80s, I enjoyed Money but it was far from my favourite. Better than Dead Babies, not as good I thought as Success.

    The excess I thought then worked well, no idea how I’d find it now, it did seem to me then though to capture something of the times we were living through. The plot twist interested me less, it seemed contrived, there to give the novel a way to progress.

    I do recall some very funny and revolting moments, Self’s desperate attempts to find something to masturbate over, flicking through album covers and old magazines, Self’s father presenting him with an itemised bill for his upbringing, there was a comic ghastliness to it that did feel very of its time.

    For me it was very much about Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain, a critique of both (particularly Britain though), for all it wasn’t referencing notable events and people of the time. It didn’t need to, it was contemporary and so didn’t have the need say that Hensher’s Northern Clemency does to remind you of the setting, as a reader then you were part of the setting and intimately familiar with it.

    Which does suggest to me that you may be right that it’s just too much of its day to have legs. Success is somehow more timeless, Money perhaps too much of its moment.


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette, Max: Your comments and experience with Money tend to reinforce my original impression that age (both of the book and myself) is a big factor in my response to it now. Also, while I didn’t say it in the review, I had the feeling that the Britain that John Self experienced was characterized much better than the New York was — the relationship with his father(s), the gang round the pub and so on.

    I suspect that also is at the root of our different opinions on the Thatcher-Reagan issue. With a little more reflection on my part, I’d agree that the Britain that is portrayed was very much influenced by Thatcher — my more extensive experience with America says that Reagan was much more a reflection of the times than a leader who created them. It is in that sense that I am glad that I read the book — while parts of it were frustrating to the point of annoyance, there were other aspects that were very worth while.

    Part of what drew me to Money now is that descriptions of The Pregnant Widow indicate that it is a look back to the contemporary narrator’s memories of this era (actually even earlier — 1970 apparently). Given the younger Amis’ ability to do that kind of analysis in fiction, I’m interested in how the near-senior citizen will do.


  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Until your review, I’d actually forgotten that part of the book took place in NY, which rather backs up your hypothesis Kevin.

    Have you read Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up by any chance? That’s very much about Thatcherite Britain, so much so that I suspect many of its references might just be lost on anyone who didn’t live here during those years, it strikes me though as a possible point of reference to the small field of British anti-state-of-the-nation novels. Iain Banks (not Iain M Banks) novel Complicity treads similar ground, arguably to better effect.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I am a Coe fan, having started with The Rotter’s Club — which means I have copies of both What a Carve Up and The Winshaw Legacy since the book got published under both titles here, something I only discovered after they arrived. As someone who does like reportage in novels, I thought both those two and The Closed Circle offered some intriguing observations on changing times. (His last book — The Rain Before It Falls — I found less interesting.) Your earlier comment about Hensher is relevant here. While I found with his book that it seemed to be directed at people who actually lived through the experience, Coe’s manage to explain it to those of us who were only occasional visitors to Britain in the eras when his novels are set.


  6. John Self Says:

    I must admit that the decision to choose John Self as an online pseudonym was made many years ago when I was much more an uncritical fan of Amis’ than I am now. I do still have a good deal of affection for Money, largely because I think that at its best it is very funny indeed, but I haven’t read it in some time and don’t plan to in the near future.

    I first read it in 1995, when I was 22 years old (during my university finals, I think), and both factors – my youth, and reading it closer to the time when it was set than Kevin has – probably enhanced my experience of the book. (That, and the reflexive trickery like having Martin Amis as a character in the book really tickled my taste buds – as it probably still would.) I do recall when I next read it, a few years later, thinking it very much too long. But that’s apt enough in a novel about excess, I suppose.

    One other thing that I do think recommends Money is that it was a novel about a specific time – the 80s, and its excesses – which was published not only while the decade was still alive but almost before it had earned its reputation: in other words, Money was almost prophetic, not in details but in its creation of elements that would later be considered (rightly or wrongly) to be emblematic of the era. Tom Wolfe achieved something similar – three years later – with The Bonfire of the Vanities, but that other great novel of OTT 80s-ness, American Psycho, wasn’t published until 1991. So top marks for prescience to Amis Jr.


  7. Trevor Says:

    I enjoyed the image of your 22 year-old Self reading Amis, John. Thanks for being the inpiration behind my blogging efforts too, by the way. I wonder, if we kept track, how many you’ve indirectly put on that road . . .


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I think your memory confirms some of the questions I had in my own mind about my impression of the book. And as noted earlier in my exchanges with Max, I think the British parts are better (and more prescient) than the New York ones.

    Your last point is a good one, particularly when I look at the current decade. While a number (far too many in my opinion) of post 9/11 novels set in the States, most (Netherland would be an exception) are not very good and none as wide-ranging as Money. I’m impressed with Junot Diaz and Monica Ali (in Brick Land) and their exploration of the immigrant experience, but that again is a restricted slice of the present (Jhumpa Lahiri’s collections probably also apply on that front). Not much else comes to mind.


  9. Mary Says:

    The scene where John Self attempts to play tennis ( or squash) is something I do recall as being very funny. Not as funny as the last scene of `Lucky Jim’ where Jim attempts to get to the station to stop his girl leaving by catching a country bus which keeps getting held up for numerous aggravating reasons. I disagee with everything Kingsley Amis stood for except his ability as a comic novelist and the memoir of his father by Martin Amis is the finest thing he’s written. in my opinion.


  10. nicknick Says:

    Ah, neat to know John Self’s Amis trajectory. London Fields was my first one, and it made an impression. I was 21, it was 1995, and I’d just read an interesting (and long!) piece in the The New Yorker about Amis and his teeth and the Information. I remember funny quotes from Salman Rushdie and Ishiguro and A.S. Byatt and other. London Fields made quite an impression, but I haven’t gone back to it. It’s long and it’s baggy and I can’t do 500-page novels anymore. Did get to a reread of Money and The Information a couple years back and I seemed to enjoy them even more, especially the latter. Suppose I’m getting old.


  11. The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte « KevinfromCanada Says:

    […] worth hundreds of millions at the other. Fans of Martin Amis, might well like to add Money into that […]


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