John Self isn't a very nice guy. He's a money-man who spends his time between London and New York doing what money-men do: making money. Or so we think. John drinks too much, watches too much pornography, gets too many massages, and winds up in too many fights. He's hedonism personified, with a touch of violence, so details are a little fuzzy. Are those contracts he's signing? Are his friends really his friends? Does he know what he's doing? We're not sure and neither is he. John fronts for B-movies and has to deal with flaky actors. He has a girlfriend named Selina and knows she's gouging him, but he's too pathetic to find someone else. Selina, by the way, isn't very nice either. No one is, and there's nobody to root for, but you keep reading anyway, bemused by John's hidebound worldview, his complete absence of culture, and his deep-seeded misanthropy. In short, our hero has no redeeming qualities, yet you want to know what happens to him, sometimes feel sorry for him, and hope he doesn't get what's coming to him. Why?
The book is fascinating because it's pushing 400 pages and, besides a few plot twists, not much happens. It's true that 50 pages could have been shaved, but things don't stay dull for long, oh no. There are rewards for pressing on. Amis knows you're being patient and where he's taking you. On p. 359, John, who's begun reading novels at the behest of a new love-interest, says, "Toward the end of a novel you get a floppy feeling. It may just be tiredness at turning the pages. People read so fast - to get to the end, to be shot of you. I see their problem. For how long do you immerse yourself in other lives? Five minutes, but not five hours. It's a real effort."
But it's not a real effort to read this book. It's witty, dark, hilarious, and exceedingly well-written. Amis is an incredible writer who creates culture where none exists, who paints scenes that few living writers can. And the awkward, deadpan humour is fantastic; very British, very funny. Some parts were so comical I reread them and laughed twice. Money might be the best postmodern novel out there. It's humorous, but serious; you laugh out loud, but it's deeply disturbing. And so it should be.
You've probably heard that Amis writes himself into this novel. His father, Kingsley Amis, also a novelist, tossed the manuscript across the room (and never read the book) when he'd seen what young Martin had done. But young Martin did it with great effect. Amis's character occasionally enters to perplex John Self even more; Amis (the character) is there during John's demise; he tries to warn John, but John won't listen. He only listens to money.
This was my third Amis novel. I read The Rachel Papers and Night Train, which were good, but Money is in a different league, and I've heard London Fields is even better. It must be something. I don't think Amis is known as a humourist; he should be. He's possibly more literary than anyone alive, yet the guffaws, intertwined with the darkness, just keep coming. Six stars.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World