Home > 1980, 20th Century, Amis, Martin, British Literature, Novel > Take a walk on the money side

Take a walk on the money side

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

  1. May 4, 2011 at 7:04 am

    I liked the part in which you write how the book resonated in your life, the parallel of the two weddings and all that. I’m sort of glad you didn’t like it because I do not have to question my first impression: I wouldn’t want to read this. The title, the name of the main character, the story, all of that together isn’t for me. It also sounds as if I’ve heard or read something similar many times before. Clichéd as can be.

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    • May 4, 2011 at 7:51 am

      I also had the impression of déjà vu but without being able to name a particular book.
      I think Money isn’t the cliché, Amis was the innovative one. The others stem from him and are the clichés.
      You’d probably enjoy the language more than me.

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  2. May 4, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Since like you I can’t say what it does remind me of, I’m not sure if he didn’t copy. I think however as well that he was influential.

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  3. May 4, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    This is one of the funniest books I have ever read and reading the review just makes me want to read it again. I too wonder if the double royal wedding nausea overload combined with the Sachs connection ruined the experience. Curious.

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    • May 4, 2011 at 11:48 pm

      I know it’s really funny. The Sachs connection put a veil of gloom on the text, certainly. But I don’t think it was the main problem here.
      I think my English isn’t good enough to read fluently and have time to enjoy the text. I needed too much concentration and stops in the dictionary: it broke the flow. And then of course, I missed references and double-meanings, that’s for sure. The ideal for me would have been a dual edition: English on the left/French on the right.
      I almost decided to buy a French translation but eventually decided to “sacrifice” the fun of this book (a shame probably) to learn new words and improve my reading in English for future books.

      PS: Thanks for Max Barry. I’m having a lot of fun so far and it’s easy to read. No need for a dictionary there.

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  4. May 5, 2011 at 5:30 am

    I just saw that you are reading Company. If you like that, you’ll probably like Syrup too. He has a new one out in a couple of months: Machine Man. Max Barry’s humour is very different from the sort of humour in Money.

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    • May 5, 2011 at 8:23 am

      I really think the main problem with Money was the language, not the kind of humour.
      I was so busy understanding the text that it left no room for sheer enjoyment. But my brain can tell you it is huge fun, wit and all the adjectives you want. He has a comical way to picture people and being in John’s head with his voices, his tinnitus, his jet-lag and his obsessions is a funny trip.

      I’d be sorry if my review discouraged anyone to read it.

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  5. May 5, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    It’s a very well written book. I was blown away when I read it. Isn’t there a scene when the father presents Self with a bill for his upbringing? It’s foul in places. I remember him looking through fashion mags in someone’s flat in the hope of finding something to masturbate to. It revels in excess.

    Amis is an exceptionally good writer at the level of the sentence, and here he I think succeeds in capturing a decade as you say just as it’s starting. He sees the future and captures it on the page. I suspect it’s his best book, though I do recall also liking Success a great deal.

    The interplay between novel and reality is interesting. It perhaps immersed you more than is entirely comfortable in what is ultimately a rather unpleasant novel (that’s not a criticism, novels need not be pleasant).

    I would say that John Self is profoundly sad by the way. Most of Amis’s characters that I’ve read seem to be in one way or another.

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    • May 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm

      It is really well written. Innovative, punchy. He has a way to twist the words and sentences and play with the language which is really special and different.

      There is a scene like this between John and his father, yes. Isn’t that awful? Again, Amis was ahead of his time, feeling where the society was going. I’ve heard of trials between parents and children. Children prosecuting parents — generally speaking uninvolved divorced fathers — to get money to study or children prosecuted by the state to pay the bill of a retirement house for parents they haven’t heard of for years. Really sad. And money is the key of these trials.

      You’re right about the magazines too. “Handjobs” are a part of John’s daily routine, like you and I brush our teeth. Or no, he masturbates more often than we brush our teeth… John Self has found his master in Alexander Portnoy, though. Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969 and I’m not sure John Self could beat Alexander Portnoy in a masturbation contest.

      Have you read I, Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe? There’s a similarity between the books as in both, characters evolve in another environment than the one they grew up in. They play by rules they don’t know or sometimes aren’t even aware of. It was the case for Charlotte and another character, Hoyt. Plus Wolfe is as sarcastic and nasty as Amis.

      Money also reminded me of A Conspiracy of Dunces, but I can’t explain why.

      I answer your comment, and now I find the titles of books I’ve read before and created that feeling of déjà vu, I guess. Thanks.

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    • May 5, 2011 at 5:22 pm

      I know a man who broke up with his long-term girlfriend and was subsequently presented with a bill. Apparently she’d kept an ongoing tally.

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      • May 6, 2011 at 8:51 am

        That’s more than petty. But at least, he knows he can do better on the generosity side. I hope there weren’t any children in the middle of this accounting relationship.

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  6. May 6, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    I’ve not read that Wolfe. It was so huge it rather put me off. I’ve only read Bonfire and some of his non-fiction reportage.

    There is something disturbingly prophetic in Money. It’s probably Amis’s greatest work. Guy, what was she charging for? The father charging the son isn’t just sad for the son in Money, it’s sad too in what it says about what the father has reduced his own relationship to. There’s a price to be paid in monetising love, and not just by the person handing over the cash.

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    • May 6, 2011 at 4:22 pm

      I liked this Wolfe despite its size. (I’m like, huge books are rather a put-off) It shows well how difficult it can be to climb the social ladder thanks to school.

      “There is something disturbingly prophetic in Money.” Absolutely. Martina is probably the only likeable character. Spoiler for those who haven’t read the book: John’s father isn’t his biological father. He doesn’t care about him (he shipped him in America when he was younger) and so the money he got from the bill was more important to him that the loss of his son. (John says he will never recover from that wound)

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  7. May 11, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Some years ago I was asked to join a book group which turned out to consist largely of elderly ladies. We read this one as one of our first books and they coped with it surprisingly well. I found the relentless money/sex story rather tedious and was glad to finish it. Its not often I feel that a book polluted my mind but this one came close to it and I was glad to eventually give it away to a charity shop

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    • May 11, 2011 at 9:56 am

      I don’t know how it is in England but here, reading groups are mostly composed of old ladies. They meet in afternoons which prevents any younger person to join them.
      I agree with you, John Self stays in mind. What really impressed me is Amis’s lucidity about what our societies were becoming.

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  8. May 11, 2011 at 8:36 am

    (however your review is excellent – you found much more in the book than I did)

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  9. May 26, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    In my experience elderly ladies tend to be remarkably sanguine about sexual content. I’ve seen the elderly shock the young more often if anything than the other way around…

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    • May 26, 2011 at 8:01 pm

      Well, don’t forget that nowadays elderly ladies were taking off their bras in the 1970s and needed a man as a fish needs a bicycle.

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      • May 26, 2011 at 8:04 pm

        And they have my thanks for doing it. As far as I’m concerned they made the world a somewhat better place.

        Shame as the American edition shows so much of that work’s been undone and so much remains unfinished.

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        • May 26, 2011 at 8:11 pm

          They have my thanks for doing it too. Thanks to them, I can work and be a mother without any guilt.

          I’m not sure I understand the second part of your comment.

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  10. May 27, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Bookaroundthecorner :They have my thanks for doing it too. Thanks to them, I can work and be a mother without any guilt.
    I’m not sure I understand the second part of your comment.

    The second part is a product of commenting on two separate posts at much the same time. The first part relates to this, but then I got myself confused with the conversation in the post about Benny & Shrimp and the sexist chapter headings (embroidery was it?). Those gender-driven headings show how much remains to be done. Sorry for the confusion.

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    • May 27, 2011 at 10:57 am

      Oh yes, OK.
      I agree : I thought the American edition of Benny and Shrimp very sexist. It makes me angry when I see women only refered to as cooking, embroidering and taking care of children. But it’s also insulting for men : it’s as if taking care of their stomach and of their children is enough to interest them…

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  1. June 30, 2012 at 11:21 pm

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