Money : by Martin Amis (Viking: $16.95; 363 pp.)
Martin Amis intrudes amiably into his novel as a sardonic deus ex machina to its hapless protagonist and narrator. At one point, he even refers to being a novelist who is a novelist’s son. So it doesn’t seem unfair to point out a mark or two of kinship between “Money” and Kingsley Amis’ “One Fat Englishman.”
Both are about a foolish and infirm America. Both focus the infirmity by means of a fat English slob who tries to get his hooks into the infirmity and ends up steamrollered. Both find a sliver of moral superiority--as does the narrator of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American"--in the humane amateurishness of their own skulduggery as opposed to the sleek American juggernaut. In the teeth of the Roman soldiery, their English anti-heroes model themselves not on Christ but on the thieves; alternately, the one on the left and the one on the right.
Martin Amis, his book and his anti-hero, whom he names John Self, come a generation later, of course, and so does his America. The latter is fragmented and post-everything: modern, electronic, punk. As for Self, he lags badly, caught between pillar and post. He is a slick advertising man, a maker of television commercials. The America he hopes to take on, and take, is a screaming media madhouse of hype, baroque film deals, shady international investors and, above all, a torrent of the money that serves as title and theme.
It is chameleon money: Its origins are murky, and its presence can never really be determined. Now you see it, now you don’t. A platinum credit card summons up stretch limos, palatial hotel suites and sumptuous meals one day. The next day, it is brought back by a threatening head waiter, neatly clipped into four pieces. The money has gone, died, been shifted to another scheme or another continent. It is radioactive and nonlinear, compounded of arcane tax angles, insurance payoffs and residual deals. You think you are buying a movie; and what you are buying is real estate. The point is always elsewhere; Caliban money has become Ariel money. And in the midst of all this, Amis’ overweight Caliban trudges, boozes, womanizes and does his linear best to wheel and deal.
The story is fairly slim, although various bits of deliberate mystification and possibly non-deliberate fuzziness tend to make it seem bigger, or at least longer. Self’s skill at making short films has caught the eye of Fielding, an American promoter. He quits his partnership in his London agency and is whizzed over to New York where big deals, high living, endless credit and a battery of meetings with glamorous stars are lavished upon him. Eventually, it all vanishes and he is left broke and abandoned back in London, with only Martin Amis to talk to and play chess with.
Self is a creature of fitful energy, occasional violence and large but futile appetites. He will talk back to a racist New York cabbie--and get thrown out on the street for his pains--and spend days in bed nursing a collection of ailments. He consumes vast amounts of junk food and drinks endlessly. Then he throws up, almost as endlessly. At times, “Money” seems to be a novel about hydrostatics.
Self is obsessed with sex, much of it in the form of pornography and auto-eroticism. He patronizes topless joints and massage parlors and tries to have an affair with a beautiful American woman with lots of money and intellectual pretentions. It is largely aborted since he finds himself largely impotent. His only satisfactory and genuine sex is with his English girlfriend, in fact; and she leaves him for an American.
The transatlantic pillaging of what remains of human values by the contemporary big-deal is the serious theme of this book, verging on the petulant at times, and cast in the mold of black comedy. Self’s London neighborhood is becoming a wilderness of fast-food joints. As a maker of commercials, Self recognizes his part in it. “My way is coming up in the world,” he says. He is not the innocent corrupted, but a small-boat sleaze navigator caught in a tidal wave.
Amis puts enormous energy into paradying almost everything in sight. Fielding, the American promoter, is both laid-back and fanatically fit, an expansive corsair who turns out to be a shriveled and half-mad fraud. A gorgeous film star practices sex as a mind-expanding experience with each lover getting one night and the whole thing videotaped for her library. The small-time crookedness of Self’s London film partners is delightfully done: Everything goes on the expense account, including a poodle that is listed as “Security--guard dog.”
But Amis’ strength is wit rather than comedy. There is a good deal of genuinely successful satire in the book, particularly in portrayal of New York obsessions, but it is displaced by the excessive space and energy spent on its narrator. Self is a mess. Sometimes he is a funny mess, and occasionally he is an interesting mess, but he dilutes himself in a flood of drinking, spewing and endless high-pressure language. He is larger than life but emptier, as well, and his emptiness crowds his wit and our interest.