‘Money’ was written in the early 1980’s, and published in 1984. This was the highpoint of Thatcherism, greed is good, and ‘Money’ represents one of the high artistic points of that period.
This isn’t saying much, because while everyone else in the Arts at the time was pointing out with different degrees of vehemence that greed is not that good, ‘Money’ is far less didactic. Money is undoubtedly a corrupting influence, but absence of money is worse. John Self, the semi-autobiographical narrator of ‘Money’ is a whoring, alcoholic, masturbating monster, roaring around London and New York, ignorant of the chaos he leaves in his wake. He reads 1984, and sees himself as one of the Thought Police. He is involved in a very confused way in the casting and production of a film based upon an idea of his, but this is largely immaterial, simply providing a backdrop to the relentlessness of Self’s hedonistic orgy. There are some wildly excessive moments of hilarity, such as when he goes to a club one night. He is totally unaware of the chaos he causes, and of course is, as in most of the novel, extremely drunk:
There was a white-haired old robot at the desk, and we shot the breeze for a while as he checked me out on the intercom. I told him a joke. How does it go now? There’s this farmer who keeps his wife locked up in the – Wait, let’s start again,…Anyway we had a good laugh over this joke when I’d finished or abandoned it, and I was told where to go. Then I got lost for a bit. I went into a room where a lot of people in evening dress were sitting at square tables playing cards or backgammon. I left quickly and knocked over a lamp by the door. The lamp should never have been there in the first place, with its plinth sticking out like that. For a while I thrashed around in some kind of cupboard, but fought my way out in the end. Skipping down the stairs again, I fell heavily on my back. It didn’t hurt that much, funnily enough.”
This was quite an extraordinary read. It is not for the easily offended – John Self is an equal opportunities offender, hitting out (in some cases literally) at women, minorities, gays, and the disabled. It is also over-long – once the pattern of transatlantic excess is established it doesn’t need repeating quite so often. And don’t read this novel for the characterisation, plotting, or dramatic incident either. While the fourth wall is broken quite regularly, with ‘Martin Amis’ making several appearances, this is not really a post-modern novel either – in many ways it is quite traditional, with a heavily broadcast ‘twist’ at the end, for what it is worth, long after the reader has stopped caring what is going to happen to John or any of the other minor characters.
What made this novel stand out to me was Amis’s wonderful use of language. It’s not just metaphor, although these are exceptional, with sometimes four or five on one sentence. But the quality of the writing is quite poetical. Take this description of the sky for instance:
“when the sky is as grey as this – impeccably grey, a denial, really of the very concept of colour – and the stooped millions lift their heads, it’s hard to tell the air from the impurities in our human eyes, as if the sinking climbing paisley curlicues of grit were part of the element itself, rain, spores, tears, film, dirt. Perhaps, at such moments, the sky is no more then the sum of the dirt that lives in our human eyes.”
When I first started to sketch out this review I struggled to find a novel to compare this to. Then it dawned on me that the closest writing style is the first person narrative style that characterises gonzo journalism, which the Internet defines as
“an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and it draws its power from a combination of social critique and self-satire…Gonzo journalism involves an approach to accuracy that involves the reporting of personal experiences and emotions, in contrast to traditional journalism, which favours a detached style and relies on facts or quotations that can be verified by third parties. Gonzo journalism disregards the strictly-edited product favoured by newspaper media and strives for a more personal approach; the personality of a piece is as important as the event the piece is on. Use of sarcasm, humour, exaggeration, and profanity is common.”
Which summarises ‘Money’ very nicely thank you. So arguably the best way to read this novel as a piece of reportage from the frontline of the 1980’s class war. Amis remains very much on my list of authors that can write well, but can also produce some absolute stinkers, but this was in many ways a redemptive experience.