Kerching! It’s so 1980s – Money by Martin Amis

I originally reviewed this book back in 2015, but thought I’d republish a slightly tweaked review after hearing of Martin Amis’ death this weekend. It’s also spurred me to dig out my copy of London Fields to re-read as one of my 20 Books of Summer. Here’s my review:

So, earlier in the summer we were picking a book to discuss at book group and someone suggested The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis. He’s an author we’ve not read before but that title didn’t appeal; individually we’d read a few of his books, but no-one had read Money, so it sort of chose itself.

Having read London Fields when it was first published, which followed Money, I had an inkling of what the earlier Amis novels were like, but Money was just so in-yer-face the whole way through, so intensely early 1980s (it was published in 1984), that I sort of hated it, but I absolutely loved it too. The 1980s framed my twenties and I can clearly remember the excess – everyone else’s that is!

What did our book group think?  Only me and one other finished it, everyone else didn’t bother, abandoned it or hadn’t finished it, most declaring it so sordid – a verdict with which I wouldn’t disagree, but I really enjoyed reading it. Let me introduce the book:

John Self, a successful yet controversial director of raunchy TV commercials, is making the move into movies. Half American, yet of humble origins in the UK, he has managed to get somewhere without the benefit of a university education. He’s enjoying going back to New York to get a film to be called Good Money into development – he’s a transatlantic man. As the book starts, he’s arrived in NYC:

The mirror looked on, quite unimpressed, as I completed a series of rethinks in the hired glare of the windowless bathroom. I cleaned my teeth, combed my rug, clipped my nails, bathed my eyes, gargled, showered, shaved, changed – and still looked like shit. Jesus, I’m so fat these days. I tell you, I appal myself in the tub and on the can. I sit slumped on the ox-collar seat like a clutch of plumbing, the winded boiler of a thrashed old tramp. How did it happen? It can’t just be all the booze and quick food I put away. I must have been pencilled in for this a long time ago. …. Can money fix it? (p5)

John Self is a man of excess. Success has brought him money, he spends it like water and he is obsessed by money. He has his flat in London and his beloved ‘Fiasco’ sports car. He fuels his life with booze, pills, porn and handjobs (he always prefers to get someone to do that for him). He has everything except love – although his on-off girlfriend Selina says she loves him, what she really wants is a joint bank account. Self is so addicted to his excessive and sordid lifestyle that you read the book waiting for a heart attack to happen, it is subtitled ‘A Suicide Note’ after all.

The novel follows Self as he travels between London and New York. When he’s in the USA, he feels totally at home liaising with producer Fielding Goodney raising the money to finance the film and then later casting it, living out of a suitcase in his hotel and frequenting clubs and brothels.  When he goes back to the UK, he’s concerned with trying to round up all the money everyone there seems to owe him, including his father Barry.

Absolutely everyone in this book has an agenda, everyone is after the money – except maybe two people – the naive leading man, Spunk Davis (his name being intentionally challenging), and the author himself…

The essential character of Self is obviously autobiographical in a satirical way, and the choice of ‘John’ shows he could be anyone, but Amis goes a bit meta and introduces himself, or another better version of himself into the narrative. Self is in the pub in London, waiting for Selina:

I was just sitting there, not stirring, not even breathing, like the pub’s pet reptile, when who should sit down opposite me but that guy Martin Amis, the writer. He had a glass of wine, and a cigarette – also a book, a paperback. It looked quite serious. So did he, in a way. Small, compact, wears his rug fairly long . . .

I was feeling friendly, as I say, so I yawned, sipped my drink, and whispered, ‘Sold a million yet?’ (p87)

Current paperback cover

Self enlists Amis’s help in rewriting the script, and Amis pops up now and then, to appear like a good luck charm for Self, doctoring the script to get around all the obstacles the film’s would-be stars are putting in the way. It all feels quite an ego-trip for author Amis, but you have to remember this novel was published in 1984 – it was Amis’s third novel and his star was in the ascendancy. Putting a sanitised version of himself into the novel complements the debauched Self.

What I hadn’t realised though, until after reading the novel, was that it was a written as a response to Amis’s own experience in moviedom as the scriptwriter of the (awful) SF movie Saturn 3, (1980), which starred Farrah Fawcett-Major with her famous haircut, and Kirk Douglas.  Apparently the ageing star of Self’s film, Lorne Guyland, is based on Douglas.

Real Amis has great fun in this novel – there are masses of self-contained jokes – mostly you have to read the book to get them. But, the character names are hilarious – obviously the aforementioned Spunk, the scene where Self tries to persude him to change his name for the international market is brilliant. There are also: a temptress called Butch Beausoleil, a lesbian writer called Doris Arthur and a Nigerian writer named Fenton Akimbo, just to mention a few. Even Selina’s surname has layers of meaning – Street – from streetwise everywoman, to glorified streetwalker.

I was constantly amused by Amis’s choice of the word ‘rug’ for hair. I’d always associated ‘rugs’ with ‘syrups’ (syrup of figs – wigs), and wondered if it was a misunderstood term by the US-born Self. (Partridge confirms that ‘rug’ was Australian slang for a toupee, dating from the 1940s; the Urban dictionary differs – referring now to women’s pubes!)

I can’t tell you what happens – but you can imagine that Self is increasingly consumed by his orgy of excess, and the film’s finances require more and more money and it all escalates to a climax. Oh dear, all this sordidness is rubbing off – time to draw this post to a close. Does anyone make it out the other side?

What I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed this book, which had some dazzling writing in it and the early 1980s were portrayed in all their glorious awfulness. I had been ready to hate it, but ended up feeling sorry for John Self.

Source: Own copy. Vintage paperback, 394 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

12 thoughts on “Kerching! It’s so 1980s – Money by Martin Amis

  1. madamebibilophile says:

    I read this so long ago that I really should re-read, I think I’d pick up on a lot more of what he’s saying now although I did rate it at the time too. I’m sure I read an interview with Martin Amis where he said Kingsley Amis thought it was disgraceful he’d put himself in his own novel!

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’ve got to read this one. I own a copy so have no excuse. The only M. Amis books I’ve read so far are Time’s Arrow, The Second Plane (NF), and Lionel Asbo.

  3. Elle says:

    I remember this being almost the first book I’d ever read which I simultaneously a) couldn’t stand, and b) admired unreservedly for the writing and the style and the competence. Most of Amis (and certainly his late work) doesn’t appeal at all, but Money was a salutary lesson in very occasionally reading something that’s very well done that you also happen to hate.

  4. Cathy746books says:

    I first read Money as a sheltered undergrad and it blew my mind. I didn’t think books could be like this. Devoured everthing he wrote up until The Information/ Night Train. he was such a trailblazer.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Not an Amis I’ve read – I think I’ve mainly read non-fiction, and Times Arrow which I loved. I find myself surprisingly sad at his passing – maybe I’ll have to explore more of his work.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve only read three, Money, London Fields and Night Train. But London Fields was back when it first came out, so a re-read of that will be my next.

  6. Calmgrove says:

    Amis has never been an author I’ve been drawn to, never convinced from profiles and reviews that he’d appeal to me. Maybe I should reassess – or maybe I already have enough on my plate? Life’s too short, innit!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think Money captures the excesses of the early 1980s so perfectly with such dazzling writing that it would be worth trying perhaps… up to you of course. I plan to re-read London Fields, the following novel over summer, but aren’t so bothered about the rest of his novels, although I’d love to read his non-fiction.

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