Martin Amis and the Art of Self Abuse

How do you create a story about a truly despicable person and make him sympathetic? Martin Amis in Money has a simple answer. You don’t. Because that’s a fool’s errand, and Mr. Amis is no fool. However, it also means the reader is not going to like John Self, the narrator and protagonist (we guess), or pretty much anyone else in the book. Self is an alcoholic, who finds pleasure in the simple things: sex, drugs, and money. And he is abusive with all of them. He is abusive with women. In fact, there is nothing and no one he does not abuse – including himself (our favorite kind of abuse). Despite this, he frequently and somewhat engagingly speaks directly to the reader asking for sympathy. “I want sympathy, even though I find it so very hard to behave sympathetically.”

Money ostensibly is about John Self, but it is really about money and all the reprehensible things people do to get money and (even more so) once they have money. So the title is no misdirection. The story, which was written (and is set) in the early 1980s, successfully captures that decade’s Zeitgeist. “The streets are full of movement but hardly anybody goes where they go through thought or choice, free of money motive.”

Self (think self-absorbed or self-indulgent or self-destructive or self-pitying or self-ish or your-self) has made a lot of money directing fast food commercials in London. But now he has an opportunity to direct his first movie and make piles more. As a result he spends much of his time shuttling between London and New York – drunk and failing miserably to manage his personal and professional lives. Though he craves money, he doesn’t actually understand money – other than how to spend it.

Everything about Self is tacky and sticky. He is an old stool in the back corner of a truck stop strip club. And because he is drunk or hungover nearly all the time, he has no clue what is happening around him. He continually gets into ludicrous situations that are quite funny at times. Self (occasionally) is also comically self-aware. “It puts you at a big disadvantage with the ladies, being drunk all the time.” But the humor particularly sizzle when Mr. Amis skewers movie stars and the movie-making business. At other times, however, the humor is dated – as it frequently comes at the expense of a self-destructive alcoholic when he is blindingly drunk.

One unexpected pleasure is Martin Amis appears as a character (because it is impossible for a novel to be post-modern unless the author is a character). Martin Amis (the character) tries to assist Self with the movie’s script, but this conceit allows Martin Amis (the writer) to make witty observations about writing, such as an “author is not free of sadistic impulses.” Based upon Mr. Amis’ abuse of Self (self-abuse?), truer words are not found in this novel.

The story is at its satirical best when Mr. Amis is mocking the pretensions of actors and other movie people. However, the novel lags about two-thirds of the way through and then limps to its conclusion. And just as with life outside books, it gets tiresome watching an unlikeable, self-destructive person continuously self-destruct.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

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