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Take a walk on the money side

May 3, 2011 24 comments

Money by Martin Amis. (1981) 394 pages.

Maybe money is the great conspiracy, the great fiction. The great addiction too: we’re all addicted and we can’t break the habit now. There’s not even anything very twentieth century about it, except the disposition. You can’t kick it, that junk, even if you want to. You can’t get the money monkey off your back.  

Last year, I read Dead Babies and Money was a recommendation. As I regretted no to have read Dead Babies in English, I bought Money in the original. A mistake maybe, but more about this later. Now, the book.

 John Self is the narrator. He’s 35, single, lives a relationship based on a sex-versus-money trade with a hot and venal woman named Selina. He’s a Londoner publicist who’s about to shoot a movie in America. He’s famous for trashy commercials advertising junk food and he turned his personal expertise in pornography into a juicy business. Some of his commercials were even censored. His idea of a script has been bought by Fielding Goodney, an American middleman who’s in charge with finding money and actors to shoot the movie. John flies back and forth from London to New York to meet with Fielding and play his part in the project.

We follow him in meetings, choosing the actors and reading the script of the film. Amis vividly pictures the insecurity of actors, their eccentric way of life, their need to be loved and worshipped. Each actor has specificities and wants to take advantage of them in the film. Each actor tries to influence the scenario in order to put forward their strength and hide their weaknesses. John spends his time in diplomatic missions to make these egotistic personalities work together.

Caduta Massi is the ageing actress with no children but show-off motherly instincts. Lorne Guyland is the model of the ageing actor who still wants to play sexy parts and insists on shooting nudity scenes.

Butch Beausoleil is the typical young actress who claims she has more brains than you imagine but is stupid anyway. She’s the kind of girl who says she already had two abortions this year but doesn’t know how she got knocked up this time as she was convinced to be sterile.

Spunk Davis is the perfect illustration of the star-to-be coming from a poor neighbourhood, reborn Christian, at first full of principles.  

Back to our narrator. John Self, what kind of name is that? A John Doe replaced by Self for selfish, self-centred? Or is it a I’m-just-myself claim, like a slogan for a commercial? His way of life is a hodgepodge of pornography, booze and laziness. He’s so deep into pornography and paid sex that I wonder if his name deserves a capital letter. He’s materialistic (he loves money), violent (he casually explains he has just quit hitting women), misogynistic (women are sex toys), vulgar (porn magazines are the only ones he reads) and illiterate (ah the glorious passage about Animal Farm!!). He’s everything but a catch.

He only cares about money. All his relationships are based upon money. It’s his safety zone. No problem with that, he thinks, you know where you are. So he thought. His father taught him that. Martina Twain is his only relationship not based on money. She challenges him, buys him books and only meets him if he’s sober. She has an inherited wealth; she oozes money but doesn’t find it fascinating as she’s never been short of money. I wonder what Martina sees in John Self. A puppy, a child who needs her help? Or does she just have the classic attraction of women for bad boys and the also very classic temptation to reform the said bad boy?  

John’s childhood memories are scattered in the novel, generally after a hammering hangover. His mother died of melancholy, like a heroin of a Romantic novel. She was American and never got used to Great-Britain. John was shipped in New Jersey to live with his aunt when his mother died. Then she shipped him back to London, where everything seemed smaller. His father is a jerk who runs a pub. He’s a gambler and also into pornography. Money is his religion too; once when he was broke, he billed John for the money he spent on his education. With these two parents, what chance did John have to escape self-loathing, violence and love of money? Not a lot, right? After all this, the reader starts to sympathise with John despite his flaws. 

Through John’s eyes, we also visit New York before Giuliani, the New-York of the Velvet Underground. His business partner Fielding has him slumming in all kinds of neighbourhoods. He walks a lot in NY, it’s a city to explore on foot. His description of LA is also spot on as far as walk is concerned:

The only way to get across the road is to be born there. All the ped-xing signs say DON’T WALK, all of them, all the time. That is the message, the content of Los Angeles, don’t walk. Stay inside. Don’t walk. Drive. Don’t walk. Run! I tried the cabs. No use. The cabbies are all Saturnians who aren’t even sure whether this is a right planet or a left planet. The first thing you have to do, every trip, is teach them how to drive.

In New York, he watches strip dancers, goes into sex shops, drinks heavily. The night is longer than in London where pubs closed at 11pm at the time, if I’m correct. He runs on coffee, booze, handjobs, pornography, fags and greasy junk food. He drinks himself dead, passes out and doesn’t remember which day it is or what he did of his night.  

Beware spoilers: skip the following paragraph if you haven’t read the book.

I thought the plot a little weak sometimes. I had guessed that Selina was sleeping with Ossie and I was disappointed to have guessed right. I’m also disappointed by the ending, a little too moral for me. John Self sorts of feel better without money and has found a Georgina who loves him for who he is? Isn’t this a little too conventional?

I was suspicious when reading, wondering where John Self had met this Fielding. The plot of his movie sounded far from fascinating. I thought the money poured over his head a little too easily and an alarm bell rang in my mind when I saw John signing contracts without reading them. I was suspicious but I hadn’t guessed it was a swindle. Like John, I saw the clues but misinterpreted them. Well, that’s the story of our lives; we run into clues but misinterpret them and make ill-founded decisions.

Earlier I said John played his part in the project. It should have been read literally as it was a setup, a show. His car is a Fiasco, the perfect name for his ride through life. He has played by rules he never knew existed and drove himself out of the road. Isn’t it what happens when you’re an outsider in the world of money? Or did he just play recklessly like during his chess game with Martin Amis?

If you have skipped the previous paragraph, you can resume reading now.

Martin Amis has a gift to encapsulate the flavour, the scent of a time. He’s smart and lucid, as I expect a real artist to be. In 1981, he felt the turnaround of the 80es and how money, sex, junk food, the want of fame would invade our societies. He also understood that language would become less formal. 30 years later, we have junk food everywhere, even in France. People are overweighed from fatty food. Pornography is an industry, porn stars are known from the public now. People spill out their lives in lousy talk-shows; I always wonder how they look their baker in the eyes after that.

John Self personalizes how the 80s pushed vulgarity and illiteracy on the front of the stage, a trend that never changed since and reaches its apogee in today’s reality shows. They encompass everything: money, sex and fame at any cost, including humiliation if need be. The more stupid and illiterate you are, the best chances you have to be invited in dumb TV shows. And everything has to be a show for people with limited concentration capacities. Politics is a show and it started in the 80s, with publicists working for politicians. Polls make decisions instead of politicians.

The Western Alliance is in poor shape, I’m told. Well what do you expect? They’ve got an actor and we’ve got a chick. More riots in Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, the inner cities left to rot or burn. Sorry, boys, but the PM has PMT.

The show goes on with the narration: John Self talks to the readers, feels their looks on him. He’s performing a show too. He’s watching us watching him. The whole novel is constructed around boomeranged looks. The reader looks at John who looks at John the reader. Martin Amis observes John who observes Martin Amis.

Some sentences are constructed in a sort of vache-qui-rit pattern, they spiral, like here in this description of London:

The car and I crawled cursing up the street to my flat. You just cannot park round here any more. Even on a Sunday afternoon you just cannot park here any more. You can doublepark on people: people can doublepark on you. Cars are doubling while houses are halving. House divide, into two, into four, into sixteen. If a landlord or a developer comes across a decent-sized room he turns it into a labyrinth, a Chinese puzzle. The bell-button grills in the flakey porches look like the dashboards of ancient spaceships. Rooms divide, rooms multiply. Houses split – houses are tripleparked. People are doubling also, dividing, splitting. In double trouble we split out losses. No wonder we’re bouncing off the walls.

I saw the designs repeated in the novel: the observation of the weather and the sky in particular, the Polish uprising led by Lech Walesa, the wedding of Charles and Diana, John’s aching tooth, the economic crisis in Great-Britain. They were a kind of Ariadne’s clew along the novel. Like in Dead Babies, Amis lets you know he’s pulling the strings of the story. He puts up a good show of him as a writer too. It isn’t serious; it’s more a way to enlighten the reader, to make him aware that writers manipulate them. You don’t forget that what you’re reading isn’t true; you’re reading someone’s work of art. And in work of art, there the word “work”. Never forget that, Amis seems to say.

Two strange things happened while I was reading Money, as if the style of the novel had backfired on me. Firstly, I read most of it during the weak William and Kate got married, an event difficult to avoid, even in France. I don’t want to think what it must have been in Great-Britain. I was hearing of this wedding a lot everywhere –TV, covers of magazines, people talking in shops…– and at the same time I was reading John Self hearing a lot about Charles and Diana’s wedding in cabs, shops, TV and covers of magazines. The novelist Martin Amis entered into his character’s life and his character entered into mine. It was as if the mirror effects he had designed in his book had sprung into my everyday life as an ultimate way to involve his reader into the story. Weird and powerful.

Secondly, I was reading Money and at the same time writing the post on Witches’ Sabbath. I couldn’t help seeing similarities between Maurice Sachs and John Self, between a real man and a fictional character too, like Amis/Self in Money. Again, the frontier between reality and fiction was blurred. Sachs’s life permeated into my reading and his worn-out tone interfered with my vision of John Self. Instead of laughing at/with John, I found him sad. I already thought that Dead Babies was sad.

After all, what do I think about this book? I tell you my friend, this wasn’t an easy read. No, Money wasn’t an easy read. I was often bored and I can’t define why. Perhaps the two effects I just described spoiled the book for me. Perhaps the difficulty of the language prevented me from enjoying the fun, although I really laughed sometimes. I certainly missed tons of references and play-on-words. You might have to be British to fully appreciate it. Amis is really talented; his descriptions of people and situations are often funny.

Then it hit me: stress – perhaps I need stress! Perhaps a good dose of stress is just what I’m crying out for. I need bereavement, blackmail, earthquake, leprosy, injury, penury… I think I’ll try stress. Where can you buy some?

Or

His head looked like a fudge sundae – I swear to God, he could have put a spoon in his ear and a maraschino cherry on his crown and looked no worse.

Hilarious, isn’t it? I know I’m talking about a major, nasty and funny book and I won’t contest this assertion. Yet, I didn’t have a lot of pleasure reading it.

PS : For Guy’s review, click here

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