Money by Martin Amis

Money by Martin Amis

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 363 pages, 1984

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: I picked this one up in a used bookstore knowing little more than the name Martin Amis, but Money looked like a good place to start with his works.

Synopsis: Money, money, money – it’s what makes John Self’s world go ’round. It buys him booze and women and occasionally a sense of self-importance, even if it can’t manage self-respect. John’s goal is to produce a movie based roughly on his own life, perhaps wishing to inject some artistry and meaning into his pathetic existence. But the money that has already shown him the ‘good’ life threatens to destroy him. John can’t believe that money won’t get him anything or anyone he wants or that there’s a sorrow too deep to drown in a bottle of whiskey, and his denial over his downward spiral seems to ensure he’s destined to hit rock bottom. But how much further down can a man go?

Why you should read this book: Vile is a strong word to use when talking about a person, but it pretty much sums up John Self, and it’s to Amis’ credit that he can evoke pity and empathy for such a lowlife instead of pure hatred or scorn. There’s a lot of ambiguity that leaves things up to each reader’s individual perception of John and his lifestyle – sometimes John seems to realize how sick the way he lives is, but he keeps returning to the way he knows despite his best intentions. The book isn’t an outright condemnation of a monied lifestyle – it’s clear that John has chosen his lifestyle, regardless of the why being convenience, expectations, or another reason altogether. You’ll find the pages flipping quickly as you follow him to the end, alternately cursing him to lie in his own filth and hoping against all hope that he’ll find enlightenment and redemption. Love John or hate John, but if you want proof of Amis’ talent, you merely need to step back and admire how he created a character that’s truly memorable – just try and resist a mental image of John Self’s excess the next time you question putting money over morality. Also impressive is Amis taking the circular nature of the alcoholic – the high, the blackout, the hangover, the denial, the promise to stop – seem distinctive even if John’s going to the same strip bar and waking up in the same motel room. Although the book was written in the 1980s, the decade of the yuppies, it still holds up today as people continue to try to define for themselves how much money is enough.

Why you should avoid this book: If you’re bothered by raging alcoholism, drug use, profanity, violent misogyny, and just an overall disregard for human life, you’ll want to avoid Money, moral of the story or no moral of the story. John Self is a foul, foul man. If you find narrative techniques pretentious rather than wonderfully experimental, watch out for Amis interjecting himself into the story. As a character, “that guy Martin Amis, the writer,” not the narrator. That’s quite the dramatic step to separate himself from the fictional John Self – and a matter of opinion whether Amis pulls it off or not.

Opening paragraph:

As my cab pulled of FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows. We banked, and hit a deep welt or grapple-ridge in the road: to the sound of a rifle-shot the cab roof ducked down and smacked me on the core of my head. I really didn’t need that, I tell you, with head and face and back and heart hurting a lot all of the time anyway, and still drunk and crazed and ghosted from the plane.

Fabulous quotes:

Selina Street has no money, no money at all. Imagine. Many times in her life she has lacked the price of a busfare, a teabag. She has stolen. She has pawned clothes. She has fucked for money. No money hurts, it stings. Right, dead right, to give her some. She has always said that men use money to dominate women. I have always agreed. That’s why I’ve never wanted to give her any. But right, dead right, to give her money. Here. Have some money…I crept to the bedroom window and put a hand between the black curtains. This spring was the coldest of the century. Now June sleet slapped at the bendy glass. Cold out there. When it’s cold. That’s when you really feel your money.

And now I am one of the unemployed. What do we do all day? We sit on stoops and pause in loose knots on the stained pavements. The pavements are like threadless carpets after some atrocious route of flesh-frazzled food and emetic drink: last night the weather gods all drowned their sorrows, and then threw up from thirty thousand feet. We sit flummoxed in the parks, among low-caste flowers. Whew (we think), this life is slow. I came of age in the Sixties, when there were chances, when it was all there waiting. Now they seep out of school – to what? To nothing, to fuck-all. The young (you can see it in their faces), the stegosaurus-rugged no-hopers, the parrot-crested blankies – they’ve come up with an appropriate response to this, which is: nothing. Which is nothing, which is fuck-all. The dole-queue starts at the exit to the playground. Riots are their rumpus-room, sombre London their jungle-gym. Life is hoarded elsewhere by others. Money is so near you can almost touch it, but it is all on the other side – you can only press your face up against the glass. In my day, if you wanted, you could just drop out. You can’t drop out any more. Money has seen to that. There’s nowhere to go. You cannot hide out from money. You just cannot hide out from money any more.

Also recommended: Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre; Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen; What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoe Heller.

Also by this author: House of Meetings; Yellow Dog; London Fields; The Rachel Papers; Time’s Arrow; Visiting Mrs Nabokov; Dead Babies; Koba the Dread; Success; Other People; The Information; Night Train; Einstein’s Monsters; Two Stories; God’s Dice; Heavy Water; State of England; The War Against Cliché ; Experience; The Moronic Inferno; Invasion of the Space Invaders.

Author’ website:

Fun tidbit: Amis’ advice for first-time authors? “Just get to the end, then worry. But do finish it.”
No doubt having a Booker-prize winning father (Kingsley Amis for The Old Devils) can’t hurt your chances, either.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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