Many years ago I read Kingsly Amis’s Lucky Jim, but until now I had never read anything by Kingsly’s equally famous son, Martin.

Money by Martin Amis

I was in thoughtful mood – expansive, self-questioning, philosophical, if not downright drunk.

What was I expecting? Well, perhaps something darkly comic, something slightly controversial, and probably something slightly controversial. I knew the book was meant to be some kind of satire or parody of the hyper-capitalistic boom days of the early 80s.

And what did I find? Well, I guess it lived up to these vague expectations … and then some! Money – or to give the novel its full title – Money: A Suicide Note, is an intense and savage tale of what can happen when individuals – and wider society – become singularly obsessed with money and the things it can demand.

Waking bright and early the next morning I reached for a copy of Delicacy as the most economical means of establishing whether I was still alive. Other questions, no less pressing – such as who, how, why and when – would just have to wait their turn.

At first I was more than a little unsure about this book. The main character and narrator, John Self, is, to put it mildly, an absolute jerk.  He is selfish, ignorant, greedy, lazy, misogynistic and lacks any form of self-control. I mean, he really has none whatsoever. So, fifty pages in, after having read yet another pathetic, sorry, drunken account, I started to wonder whether I really wanted to read on… but then I started to ‘get it’.

Yes, this is one of those books that likes to wrong-foot you. You could isolate a single paragraph or page or few pages and just see the drunkenness, the chaos, the obscenity and think, what am I reading? Is this really art? Is this really worthy of my attention? Yet as you stay with it, you come to see what Martin Amis is doing. For this is in fact, intelligent writing. This is social commentary. This is a book with something to say.

Much of the narrative is darkly comic. At times John Self has flashes of insight, but much of the time the joke is just how absurdly misguided he is. It is the consumer age writ large. It is a world where anything and anyone can be bought and where, therefore, it seems that only money matters. John Self holds up money as the answer to literally any problem. He convinces himself that his long-term abuse of his body (through excessive drinking, smoking, pills, fights, poor diet and sleep deprivation) will all be rectifiable in the future if he earns enough money to visit the top health surgeons and cosmetic surgery artists some day.

I felt my heart curl and my scalp hum. Why? I gave up spirits three days ago. Giving up spirits is okay so long as you drink an incredible amount of beer, sherry, wine and port and can cope with especially bad hangovers. I think I had an especially bad hangover.

Likewise, when things are not going so well with his girlfriend, he tells himself that it doesn’t really matter; that ‘ll be able to get himself a better one, once he has a little more money. Yes, that’s right: John Self sees everything in life as a commodity.

John Self is the ultimate hedonist in a way. He is a slave to his appetites, addictions and whims. So, there is no end of drunkenness, eating and sex in this novel, yet it is significant to note that none of this really brings any true pleasure of happiness to Self. In fact, the reverse is generally the case: that the binges and blow-outs and orgies typically leave him sad, lonely, disappointed and full of shame.

So Money makes for an uncomfortable read at times. Yet it is also gripping. It is darkly comic, at times even brutal, yet also strangely moving, and, occasionally, life-affirming. Taken as a whole (394 pages in my edition) this narrative is sharp, forceful, significant. Plus, I must say that the writing is very good in parts. Amis uses a lot of parody, to good comic effect. I could go on pulling out quotes after quote. As you’ll see from my selection here – many of them revolve around Self’s pathetic alcoholism:

Martina sighed. ‘You were drunk. You know, it’s quite a lot to ask, to spend a whole evening with someone who’s drunk.’
…I had always known the truth of this, of course. Drunks know the truth of this. But usually people are considerate enough not to bring it up. The truth is very tactless. That’s the trouble with these non-alcoholics – you never know what they’re going to say next. Yes, a rum type, the sober: unpredictable, blinkered and selective. But we cope with them as best we can.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Lucky Jim by Kingsly Amis, or The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, or The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

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