My life was a joke. My death will be serious. That must be why I am so afraid… Don’t be like me, pal. Sister, please find another way. Soon you and I will no longer exist. Come on, let’s feel a little fear together. Give me your hand. Shake…
Subtitled ‘A Suicide Note’, the narrative tone throughout reflects what most of us probably feel on a suicide attempt, successful or not: giddy with triumph and regret, drunk on sadness and resolve. Money is a kind of song, one you never get sick of. ‘Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by,’ reflects its hard-drinking narrator, ‘not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror. It’s passing, yet I’m the one who is doing all the moving. I’m not the station, I’m not the stop: I’m the train. I’m the train.’
Martin Amis‘s best novel still defies analysis. James Diedrick, perhaps the foremost Amis scholar, writes in Understanding Martin Amis that the book can be read purely as a satire on consumerism: having summarised and dismissed the obvious approach, he goes on to outline a alternative theory based on ‘doubling’ that isn’t very convincing and has never really worked for me. The criticism in Nicolas Tredell’s The Fiction of Martin Amis draws heavily on identity politics and is so bad it’s embarrassing. (However, I don’t want to discourage you from those two books, which are essential for hardcore fans.)
Amis himself revealed Money‘s secret in an interview with John Haffenden:
Everyone in the book is a kind of artist – sack-artists, piss-artists, con-artists, bullshit-artists – and perhaps this leads on to something I will understand and write about later. There is a type of person who is a handsome liar, a golden mythomaniac, who lies for no reason, without motivation.
I should explain the basic premise. Money is told by a degenerate adman, John Self, who is trying to make a feature film in New York: after many chaotic adventures he discovers (in a moment of dire revelation dubbed a diabolus es machina by Eric Korn) that the entire project is a motiveless scam perpetuated by Self’s producer, Fielding Goodney. The redundancy of motivation is one of Amis’s recurring obsessions – in The Information he quotes from David Simon’s Homicide: ‘Work out the how, which will give you the who. But fuck the why.’
In Money he’s more specific, arguing that clear, external motivation has been undercut by intelligible internal drives. In a walk-on cameo Amis explains to Self (fruitlessly) that ‘motivation comes from inside the head, not from outside. It’s neurotic, in other words.’
‘London is full of short stories, long stories, epics, farces, sitcoms, sagas, soaps and squibs, walking around hand in hand,’ says John Self. Money is about storytelling. It’s a thrash of competing fictions. We all have a narrative of our lives inside our head, and success depends on how closely our mind fiction follows the track of actual reality. (You know when people say: ‘This is not how I imagined my life at age…’ and that classic job-interview question: ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’) The role of money in the novel, and outside it, lies in the extent to which it helps the exterior reality to resemble the internal one. The comedy of life and art derives from the distance between true and internal reality. Self: ‘You’re bound to get that when you deal with people who want to write their own lives.’
The tensions that almost wreck John Self’s film derive from its cast. The funniest example is that of Lorne Guyland, an ageing male lead who is portrayed in the film script not as the cultured womaniser of his self-image but the flailing impotent that he really is. Similarly, the morbidly maternal Caduta Massi is scripted as a barren wife; a teetotal born-again is forced to play an abusive drunk. The screenplay concocted by Fielding is ‘a witty, four-pronged character assassination’: it punctures the stars’ delusions and derails their internal narratives. Fielding himself is described by his creator as ‘a failed actor’ who ‘wanted an actor’s revenge. He took it out on real life.’
What’s noticeable about Self is that he has no internal script. He’s a materialist first and last. While most people seek wealth because of the status and security it brings, Self is interested in money only because it can be exchanged with physical pleasure: from eating, smoking, drinking, drugs, porn and callgirls. His ideal economy would be a kind of barter system: ‘You know, they used to use meat for money, and snout, and booze, and chicks of course… Now those sound like my kind of market forces. I’d have been happier then, in the old days.’ Self is resolute in his ignorance of narrative. The book is full of mocking literary allusions (a brothel called the Happy Isles, and the Shakespeare pub) that he either doesn’t notice, or misreads completely.
Yet he is an exception. Amis understands that fiction isn’t confined to the author: ‘readers are natural believers. They too have something of the authorial power to create life’. For all his arrogance and elitism, Amis places enormous value on the reader (‘I’m all for this intense relationship with the reader… I really want the reader in there’). Just as the mutual antagonist narrators of Success each try to get the reader to believe their version of events, John Self is constantly referring to the reader for reassurance or clarification.
Money itself, Amis says, is no more than a ‘fiction’, and even Self realises this at the end: ‘If we all downed tools and joined hands for ten minutes and stopped believing in money then money would no longer exist.’ Since the great crash it has become urgent to find new and better fictions – and perhaps it was in this spirit that Amis dedicated Money to its readers: ‘for you out there, the dear, the gentle.’