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FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY
Rereading the late Martin Amis’ excessive tale of excessive excess
“Is it supposed to be funny?”
I’ve been asked this twice by two different people.
“I think so,” I answer, the difference between glorification and horrification being in the eye of the beholder, I guess.
This isn’t my first go-around with Money, the seminal work from Martin Amis, the once enfant terrible of English letters, and nepo baby with chops, who died of esophageal cancer at age 73 late last month. I read it for the first time about twenty years ago in a 20th Century lit class at McGill University. Back then (and God did I want to be an enfant terrible back then), Money was already about twenty years old. So was I. And that makes both me and Money solidly middle-aged.
Money is a book about the unraveling of Self. John Self, to be exact, an ad man (of course, more on that later). Self is a disgusting boor. He suffers from “compound hangovers.” He contemplates whether a stain on his suit is Champagne or urine. He’s prone to public crying jags. He’s misogynistic, belligerent, gluttonous, etc., etc. He’s addicted to booze, junk food, porn, vitamins, penicillin. “I’m addicted to the 20th Century,” he says. As Amis writes, “You recognize the type by now? Some people get sleepy when they drink a lot, but not us. When we drink a lot, we want to go out and do things. Never do anything is the rule I try and stick to when I'm drunk. But I'm always doing things. I'm drunk.” And like so many others wrapped up in addiction, he has his moments of charm, loyalty, chivalry, even. It’s complicated.
Trainwrecks can be funny to behold. Except, of course, when they’re not. Holding a piss through all four acts of Verdi’s Otello? Showing up well late to a dinner party that he’d already attended (and left) earlier in the evening? Pretty funny. Accosting a female screenwriter with Weinstein-esque force. Not funny. His victim’s response is telling of what would be to come: “She steadied herself. She spoke with effort, but she managed to get it all out in the end. 'You asshole,' she said. 'I didn't know they were still cranking them out. You think that despite ourselves women like me are attracted to men like you. But I don't want to go to bed with men like you. I don't want men like you to exist.'” Doris Arthur was ahead of her time. And by extension, so was Amis.
Set on the brink of an incoming recession, (yeah, it’s called Money) the allusions to our time are everywhere. 2023. 1981. Coexisting with the constant specter of inflation. A royal wedding. A coronation. Soviets flexing across borders. Everything old really is new again. Amis foretells the rise of pornography to culture-defining ubiquity, rampant consumerism, fast food made faster, and more greed, always more greed. He even sends up one very 21st century creative agency trope. Self runs “an advertising agency which produces its own television commercials.” Wow. Remember, this book was published in 1984. You think your agency’s new model of doing advertising is new? Nice try.
Watching Self depth charge his life is certainly funny to me, a mostly reformed deviant with a still mostly warped mind. But there can be a fine line between comedy and tragedy, usually put in place by chronological distance, i.e., the travails of an addict are funny in the rearview. It’s a real laugh riot when it’s over. Assuming nobody dies. Such is a life spent in the gallows. But there’s a tragedy I picked up on this time through that I was ill-equipped to absorb as an un-sober man (and to be honest, at that time, “man” is a stretch) back in the early aughts. Back then, like Self, as Amis writes in Money, “I was led to believe that being young was quite an achievement. Everyone seemed to encourage me in this apprehension, especially the old.” My literary heroes were the alcoholic, misogynistic, pugilistic and/or strip club enthusiasts of the arts and letters. In re-reading, I wondered if old me (who was actually young me) had any glimmer of awareness that this was a cautionary tale. For a budding blackout drunk, sure. But also for a culture rapidly descending into gross consumerism and permanent screen time. Often incapacitated in college, I’m not totally sure my not quite fully developed cerebral cortex had much capacity for picking up on portents.
What also struck me is just how provocative and groundbreaking this book feels all these years on, as if everything else I’ve read in the interim—apart from Ottessa Moshfegh’s prescription-drug-laced My Year Of Rest and Relaxation—never bothered to shock me. Four decades from publication, this book still sears.
Spending time with Self, it is clear he set the mold for another zeitgeist-occupying, womanizing, intoxicated adman of the cultural canon, Don Draper. Self grew up over a pub with a pole. Draper, a brothel. They have their enablers in advertising, an industry that here serves as metaphor for addiction. The always wanting. The unfillable void. This is the foundation of consumption culture. It’s a terminal illness installed by people like Self and Draper who says infamously, “What you call love was invented by guys like me.” As Amis writes, “keep a fix on the addiction industries: you can't lose. The addicts can't win. Dope, liquor, gambling, anything video—these have to be the deep-money veins. Nowadays the responsible businessman keeps a finger on the pulse of dependence.” Both Self and Draper are able to attract women in spite of everything. They both suck on the decent human being front. Except for when they don’t. So we root for them to overcome themselves. Bojack Horseman, too. We need that redemption story fix, a desire seemingly bound to our DNA. We are preternaturally predisposed to loving an arc. And Self certainly has one. The classic fall from grace. Minus any evidence of, you know, actual grace. “I hope my big break doesn’t break me,” he muses. As we watch Self travel from top of the world to the bottom of it, we realize the top was never really there, it was an apparition, another delusion. Self was always at the bottom. He was just the last to find out. If this book has a point, it’s that excess only leads to one place. Emptiness.
About ⅞ through this book, I’m dying for Self to sober up. Self, too, “I've got to get this stuff out of my system. No, more than that, much more. I've got to get my system out of my system.” Maybe later down the timeline, well beyond the final pages of Amis’ novel, he does. Maybe he puts in the work. Like so many people I know: reformed degenerates living useful lives, maybe he even became a great guy. Maybe. Maybe not.
After I flipped the last page, I was surprised just how relatable this novel is to me now. At twenty-something I lacked the Self-awareness (that double-entendre there is definitely intended) to relate to anything. Did this book attach itself to my subconscious with 100-proof strength and invisible hand me into my chosen career path (advertising) former life path (strip clubs)? Was my penchant to terrorize diners at adjacent tables on multiple continents installed subliminally by Amis? Or, just genetic? There’s a moment in the story where a bellman looks at Self and says, “'I take one look at you, man, and I know you ain't never gonna stop.'” A bartender at a Manhattan hotel where I resided for the better part of a summer, told me “you have a problem” as she handed me my last tequila-and-grapefruit of the trip before I headed off for JFK en route to Los Angeles. I honestly thought she was joking. I was not sipping any self-awareness that summer. Thank God, I got sober a few months later. I stopped. But when I look back, it’s hard not to see some of myself in Self. Maybe there’s a little John Self in every self. Why don’t you see for yourself. Find a copy. Give it a read. Have a few laughs. Or don’t.
Text by Andrew Smart
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