Saturday, August 7, 2010
Money : a Suicide Note by Martin Amis
Money (1984) is the first of three novels (followed by London Fields and The Information) that are commonly referred to as Amis' "London Trilogy." Amis' protagonists are passionate iconoclasts and strive to escape the banality and futility of their lives, amidst a world of amorality and greed. They shuttle between London and New York in an era where there was no shortage of sordidness and debauchery. Those who frequented Manhattan in the 1980s will recognize a pre-Giuliani city replete with peep shows on 42nd St., hookers in hot pants in front of Port Authority, and junkies and panhandlers taking control of parks like Union Square. I know I digress, but readers are well rewarded reading Malcolm Gladwell's insightful chapter on how mayor Giuliani (1994-2001) cleaned up New York with a zero-tolerance approach, in his book The Tipping Point (2000).
Lest the reader get hung up in the bleak imagery, it should be noted that this is a very rich novel, this is Literature with a capital "L." It is lauded as groundbreaking in it's use of language and character development, often compared to Nabokov's Lolita (Nabokov making a huge impression on Amis), especially in terms of the concept of the artist manqué. The dialogue sometimes takes on the character of a chess match in its timing, precision, and complexity. Late in the novel there is a great reference (p. 349) to "Zugzwang," meaning forced to move, whoever has to move has to lose. Time included the novel in its list of the 100 best English-language novels of 1923 to 2005 (http://www.time.com/).
John Self, the protagonist, is an ad man and director of a movie "Bad Money." A chain smoker, he is an alcoholic and pornography addict, he is obsessed with money and has a very limited view of the world. He refers to his flat as a "sock," a term which is explained in Amis' book Experience (p. 306n). Fielding Goodney, producer, contacts him to leave London for New York to help cast the movie. He leaves his girlfriend Selina Street behind. In New York, he falls for sophisticated Martina Twain (read double), whose husband Ossie, is having an affair with Selina. The novel starts out with a suicide note, in brief, Self realizes late in the novel that his true father is Fat Vince, and with this knowledge, Self ceases to exist (the suicide).
An actual character by the name of Martin Amis is inserted in the novel much the same as Nabokov figures into Lolita. "This writer's name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heardcof him. Do you know his stuff at all ?" (p. 72) "Martin Amis was in the book all right - in fact he as there twice, once as Martin, once as M.L." (p. 219). This is the epitome of a post-modern novel, calling to attention the fact that a work of fiction is, in fact, a work of fiction. It is noteworthy that the author imbibes himself with the most sane and stable of character traits of anyone in the novel.
Throughout the novel, a mysterious character (referred to as Frank the stranger) keeps calling Self without identifying himself, but seems to know every detail of his whereabouts. Self manages to ignore him for most of the novel until he has an ultimate confrontation. Themes from Shakespeare's Othello frequent the novel, generally over Self's head. When Self and Martina go see Othello at the opera, Self fails to understand that Desdemona remains true to Othello, as Self says "The flash spade general [Othello] arrives to take up a position on some island [Cyprus], in the olden days there, bringing with him the Lady-Di [Desdemona] figure as his bride. Then she starts diddling one of his lieutenants [Cassio], a funloving kind of guy whom I took to immediately." He's missed the point. The story line crops up again when Self finally is confronted by Frank the Stranger in an alley, only to realize it is actually Fielding Goodney. Self hears him say "I don't know. You - new man dog." (p. 347) The character Amis later explains to Self that the Stranger must have said "inhuman dog." These are Othello's words "Oh damned Iago. Oh inhuman dog," Goodney thinking of Self as Iago and himself as Roderigo in the play.
There is a point near the end of the book in which Self realizes Amis' role as author "I'm the joke. I'm it! It was you. It was you." (p.349) In a curious "endgame" the final section is in italics. This symbolizes Self's escape from the author's surveillance. In this section Amis shows up briefly, only to be told by Self to "fuck off out of it." (p. 359) Amis' status as an artist has been vehemently rejected by his creation. Matthew Dessem, critic, makes the case that the concept of artist manqué is critical in the understanding of Amis' novels. Self's failed attempt to turn his life into art is the essence of the artist manqué concept, where the artistic ambition is unfulfilled.
There is a massive amount of scholarly criticism on the novel, much of it can be found in the comprehensive website http://www.martinamisweb.com/. The BBC adapted Money for television as part of their early 2010 schedule for BBC 2 and featured Nick Frost as John Self and Jerry Hall (Mick Jagger's supermodel ex-wife) as Caduta Massi. Amis is known to have loved the adaptation.