Martin Amis is known for many things. His father, Kingsley. His penchant for attracting the media. His friendships. And it seems, at times, his writing. And while I’m one of those detractors that think his best work was published two decades ago, it doesn’t mean those books of yore are any less relevant today than they were those many years ago.
Take for instance Amis’ novel Money, which is easily among the best novels written about the 80s, during the 80s. Popular when it was released, it never quite met with the same acclaim of say, a Bonfire of the Vanities. This is understandable. Amis’ writing style can be polarizing, an acquired taste. His writing can seem a riddle or an inside joke. There’s no panoptic insight. The writing style can leave a reader exhilarated or annoyed. This piece of anecdotal evidence sums it up best: attending a reading of Amis’ a few years ago, I sat next to a woman clutching his novel London Fields. She asked me if I’d ever read it. I had. Her response: “I keep starting London Fields, but I just can’t get on with it.”
But back to Money. Here is a novel that so succinctly encapsulated the greed of a decade. A greed that didn’t so much diminish with the waning of time but rather morphed into something else entirely, in the 90s it was peace and prosperity and at the beginning of the 21st century, easy money (one of the original titles Amis thought of employing for the novel). Then came 2008, when the cover was blown, and we learned we weren’t in on the joke, rather as one of Amis’ characters says, “We were the joke.”
And so upon revisiting John Self (the last name, the last name!) and his travails, I can’t help but note its prescience. Self jets back and forth between London and New York, two cities teetering on the edge of insanity, with a seemingly endless supply of cash and time. He’s being underwritten by a production company of which he is a partner, and Fielding Goodney, a man of nebulous credentials. On the heels of a successful career at directing commercials, he’s a nasty little man on a mission to make a movie. His life consists of “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drinks, pubs, fighting, television, hadjobs.” Self lives, as he so eloquently puts it, “like an animal—eating and drinking, dumping and sleeping, fucking and fighting—and that’s it. It’s not enough.” In short, his self-image is that of a consumer so willingly accepting of all that is offered and promised him.
So many novels attempt to deconstruct their subjects. Amis’ novels are the subject.
John Self is the personification of the world circa 2007. New York and London could be replaced with any number of financial centers. The cast of characters with which he hobnobs, Lorne, Spunk, Caduta—such ridiculous names—could easily go by that of Fannie Mae, Citigroup, Bernie Madoff. His vices could be our vices: Our cheap adjustable rate mortgages, credit default swaps, the money flowing in endlessly.
I won’t go too much into the novel. The less you know the better the read, or the rereading, will be. This isn’t a review. It’s a suggestion. A gentle nudge. It’s an encomium that should hastily lead you to snatch up the book and consume it lyrical powers and then nod your head in recognition and respect.
Amis likes to say style is morality. In Money that’s never more evident. Amis is unrelenting and vindictive, unleashing a panoply of pleasures and pains. As we witness the demise of Self as he slowly gets carpet-bagged, it’s easy to see ourselves in his plight.