Money by Martin Amis, for my money the best novel of the 1980s

Eileen Battersby celebrates the 30th anniversary of a virtuoso satire

Nick Frost as  John Self in a 2010 BBC adaptation of Money

Nick Frost as John Self in a 2010 BBC adaptation of Money

 

John Self, semi-deranged by the notoriety of his X-rated TV commercials, inhabits a modernist transatlantic Hades awash with trashy sex, fast food, drugs, liquor, pornography, big talk and greed. There is also his paranoia; departing hair, a bloated body, blackouts, unsettling interludes of stark lucidity, his treacherous friends and a flash if unreliable car – the aptly name Fiasco. His remaining teeth are also poised to inflict further grief.

Part yob, part damaged small boy, Self, son of a now dead but previously despairing American mother and a still very much alive nasty English father, was born and raised in a London pub. Not that he is complaining; nor is he completely stupid. At times his street-wise musings veer towards a somewhat heightened rhetoric suggesting that under the heaving lard struggles a more refined sensibility.

Anyone interested in nominating the novel of the 1980s need look no further. This is it. Money (1984), a virtuoso satire of any age, is for all the grotesque, hilarious comedy, profanity and inspired set pieces a dark study of how money seduces, corrupts and destroys. In this, his fifth novel, Amis consolidated the narrative gifts of plotting and characterisation, as well as the vague menace, that had begun to mature so dramatically in its intriguing predecessor, Other People: A Mystery Story (1981) and would triumph in his finest work to date, The Information (1995), which seethes with muted terror in the form of an unspecified dread.

It is significant that Self, though a Londoner, mistakenly believes, thanks to having been despatched to the States after his mother’s death, that he understands America. This explains his dilemma. While not American, he is not quite English either. Presenting worldly, depraved John Self as an innocent abroad in New York may stretch credulity, yet it convinces. Though untrustworthy he is trusting; he shouts, gorges on burgers, drinks, leers at women, picks fights, falls down, tends to forget his more spectacular outbursts and is a walking embarrassment. He is also a likable, forgiving if not quite typical Everyman on a messy odyssey towards personal discovery via a crackpot movie project.

Amis possesses a surreally astute flair for language. Little escapes his anthropological moralist’s eye. John Self begins to take note: “I should have realized that when English people say they can play tennis they don’t mean what Americans mean when they say they can play tennis. Americans mean they can play tennis…” The tour de force tennis game is later mirrored in a telling chess encounter. Amis salutes Nabokov with a narrative device and plot twist of calculated cunning. In this, its 30th anniversary year, Money continues to parade its stylistic mastery, sharp dialogue and clarity of intent.

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