Wednesday, September 19, 2012

MoneyMoney by Martin Amis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Perhaps the best piece of writing I've ever read on the subject of money is, strangely enough, a poem by the American poet Dana Gioia. You wouldn't think money and poetry could go together, but they do. After all, we say that we 'coin' a new phrase. Poetry and money are both currencies embodying significance within them. Poetry has rhythm and musicality, meaning and feeling. Money, one might observe has similar properties, it's own music, and lifeforce that expresses many fundamental human qualities on a variety of levels depending on who possesses it and how it's used, it expresses what we value, from our highest aspirations and dreams to our basest desires. In his poem Gioia captures our deeply human connection to cash brilliantly and simply through all the words and phrases we have for it, our multifaceted obsession with it, and the mystery that exists at its core. Money doesn't lie. If you want to know the truth just follow the money. This is essentially the stance of Martin Amis's 1984 novel Money, in the guise of degenerate pornography-loving, alcoholic ad-man and aspiring film director John Self, as he flies back and forth from Manhatten to London trying to get his first feature-length motion picture off the ground. This is not a novel that the reader escapes into, and that's intentional. It does not have characters that we can relate to or sympathize with. There is no sense in describing in any detail the characters or plot (both rather thin) in a novel in which these conventions are secondary. This is a novel about money in the same way that Seinfeld was a TV show about nothing, the difference being that Seinfeld's characters were narcissistic but still likable while Amis's are unremittingly egomaniacal and debased. But it doesn't really matter, because as with money itself, this is a novel in which style is substance and content is form. Like someone teetering on the edge of suicide the narrative balances along a precipice, lowlife as high concept. The tone is decidedly ironic and the novel's juices are in its language, a bold, clever, jazzy, riffing, extravagant style as robust and exhilarating as it is disturbing. The novel's self-reflexiveness - the author introduces a novelist character named Martin Amis - was a reason why his famous novelist father Kingsley lost patience and launched the book across the room complaining, "Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself." Amis (son) does have a point to make, an insight into the way we've allowed markets to be the ultimate arbiter of value, morality and taste. I'm generally not a fan of the approach, and picked this one up because it immediately predated one of my all time favourite novels, his stunning and important Time's Arrow. That novel combines a virtuosity and experimentation in literary technique with a soul, literally and figuratively. It's a book about the Holocaust and probes the darkest recesses of mind and heart in a surprising way that turns the world upside down (actually backwards) and manages to be profoundly moving, even uplifting. Time's Arrow is compressed and restrained, the exact opposite of Money, and for that reason I think a more successful book. Money feels like it gets lost along the meandering way. There are brilliant moments and the writing is compelling (it kept me reading to the end) but it's not moving, which is too bad, because as Gioia's poem shows, money does have its own poetry and because of, not in spite of, how money reveals us at our worst. The experience of reading Amis's Money is the experience of being toyed with. Money is the supreme fiction the narrator remarks, but the reader doesn't always want to be reminded that fiction is all it really is.

View all my reviews

No comments: