“What did I get myself into?”
It has been a month since I have finished reading Money (A Suicide Note) by Martin Amis and this is still the first reaction that comes to mind whenever I think of that book. I am still reeling from the after-effects of immersing in such a wild rollercoaster ride of a novel, much like having those terrible hangovers that Money‘s “protagonist,” John Self, regularly suffers from. Honestly, this hasn’t been an easy read at all for me. It comes as a terrible shock, especially coming from such an uncomplicated book like Unholy Night. There were many times I had to put it down and get away from it to breathe some fresh air. That is why it took me such a long time to finish it and why I consider it an achievement that I was able to pull this off. Yet in spite of its difficulty and all the distasteful things occurring within its pages, I have come to appreciate its brilliance: the author’s mastery of language, the brutal yet honest depiction of life in the fast lane and the dark humor that makes everything a little bit more bearable. I have no doubts why Money is considered a modern classic.
In this novel, we follow the travails of Self, an amoral English director about to make his directorial debut with his first feature film, Good Money (also alternatively titled Bad Money later on). He shuttles between New York and London to work on this movie project, but he mostly just ends up getting drunk, eating too much fast food, reading smut, starting fights, whoring and masturbating. When he’s sober enough to work, he spends his time mostly in negotiating deals with his producer Fielding Goodney and attending to the difficult demands of the actors of his movie – the narcissistic Lorne Guyland, blonde bombshell Butch Beausoleil, the motherly Cadutta Massi and the overly rigid (and unfortunately named) Spunk Davis. Meanwhile, he is distracted by his suspicions that his girlfriend, Selina Street, is cheating on him and a mysterious caller he nicknamed Frank the Phone keeps on threatening to destroy his life.
The plot, for the most part, is almost non-existent. Any movement in terms of the story only comes later, almost at the very end of the book. Instead, most of our time is spent watching (or reading) in horror all the kinds of depravity that John Self gets himself into. Character is king here and, unfortunately, we are stuck with a very unreliable narrator. One moment he’s up and about, and then, a few pages later, he’s back in his hotel room suffering from a severe hangover and trying to remember what happened the night before. As a reader, I felt helpless and angry at the same time as he stumbles to one trouble (that he himself caused) after another. Self himself knows the shit he’s wallowing in and he tries his best to get out of it but Money – with a capital ‘M,’ the Money that we are all so secretly desiring – has consumed him completely and he is not sorry about it at all.
What I find amazing about this whole thing is even though Self is a total pig, one cannot hate him completely either. He still exudes a certain likability probably owing to the fact that he owns up to his faults and he isn’t afraid to show his vulnerabilities. I am not saying he is a sweetheart underneath all that fat – at his core he is still detestable and disgusting – but a human being still, complicated and full of ironies. His comeuppance in the end, while satisfying, has also generated a bit of pity in me. This, I guess, is a testament to Amis’ genius as a writer to give what could have been a caricature depth and intensity.
The humor he injects in the midst of the ugliness is another high point of the novel. It’s another wonderful aspect to Self’s character. Most of the humor comes from his attempts at making himself more cultured and learned. He knows this is the only way to control Money’s hold of him but his attempts are clumsy at best. He takes Animal Farm too literally and misunderstands the plot of Shakespeare’s Othello. Eventually, he slides back down to the things he knows best: pornography, alcohol, fast food and Money. He deals with it in a nonchalant way, using humor to downplay his addictions.
Finally, Amis’ gift with words comes through in Self’s stream of consciousness and I must say that it is one of the main reasons why this book is a classic. In his reveries, he often waxes poetic about ordinary things, making us see them in a new (sometimes unconventional and perverse) light. Take a look at this beautiful passage wherein he combines his lyrical tendencies and his propensity for the pornographic in describing his walk downtown:
As I walked home through streets the colour of oyster and carbon the air suddenly shivered and shook its coat, like a wet dog, like the surface of worried water. I paused–we all did–and lifted my face to the sky, as a slave or animal might lift its face, fearing punishment but risking it anyway. With banisters of sunbeams a lit staircase now lead straight to the blue heaven, far beyond the daily sky of empty eggtrays, full sinks, kitchen mists. ‘Okay. Show me something,’ I said, and wiped my face with my hand. Up in the clear distance basked a hollow pink cloud, a rosy cusp fastened by tendrils at either end, like a vertical eye, a vertical mouth. In its core lay a creaturely essence, meticulous, feminine…Dah–do I push that thought away? Issuing from my head, can pornography now shape the clouds and hold all sway in the middle air? Wait…the rose, the mouth, the glint. Come on, if that is what it looked like then that is what it looked like. I am probably not alone in supposing that I am shaped by how I see things. And that cloud up there certainly looked like a pussy to me.
Now, let’s go to the parts I wasn’t really enthusiastic about. First, Martin Amis the author puts a postmodern twist in this book by including himself as a character. This is an all too common practice and it really doesn’t bother me usually but in this case, I honestly don’t know what to make of it yet. Sometimes I feel like it is too much – like an attempt at cleverness. It also seems masturbatory to include yourself in the story and to depict yourself as the more “sane” counterpart to your hedonistic main character.
Second, I think this could have been a shorter book. Three hundred and sixty two pages to depict one man’s corruption seem a tad too much. Self’s self-destructive routine gets a bit repetitive later on: wake up with a splitting headache, drink, try to work, indulge in a bit of sex with prostitutes, drink some more, blackout. Halfway through the book, I really had a hard time sticking with the story because I was wondering if there was any point to all of this. Like, I already get it this is what excess looks like – what happens next? And then when I was just about ready to give up, the plot twist happens and suddenly I’m back in the story and I can’t let go of the book. I just wished it happened sooner.
(Or could this be a trick by the author? This book is essentially a critique against the culture of hypercapitalism – a culture marked by greed and instant gratification. Maybe it’s to show us that we are no different from Self, only we deny it to ourselves because we do not share in his favorite addictions… that we are actually complicit in letting Money run the show. What if having no motivations at all is exactly the motive of this book? I don’t know already. It makes my head hurt.)
Money is quite an experience. Some may love it and some may despise it. I loved the characterization and the wonderful prose but it’s not something that I will go back to for a long time. I’m not going to stop anybody from reading this, but all I’m saying is – be prepared.