There’s always some wag who, when all other hacks are wondering whether Quentin Tarrantino or Damien Hirst or whoever has lost it, suggests that they never had it in the first place.
Being an icon: an occupational hazard of being iconic. You never know when you’ll stumble headlong into an oncoming iconoclasm. You never know when you’ll find yourself stunned and abandoned on the tarmac, blinded by emergency lights, your acolytes absent, while unfamiliar hands strip you of your clothes and your accoutrements of status.
When fellow author and fan Tibor Fischer reviewed Yellow Dog, Amis’ 2003 novel, he described it, ‘like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.’ Despite his disappointment Fischer seemed to remain loyal. But wouldn’t you wonder whether there may have been something wrong with your uncle all along? Wouldn’t it make you reconsider those time he came around to entertain you and your friends? The balloon animals?
Money was published in 1984, the perfect platform from which to insert itself into the decade’s nascent self of itself. Money may be the definitive 80s novel and the 80s define Amis. He hitched a lift and found the leather runs smooth.
It begins in New York, where everything is something and knows how to makes itself heard. Cars shark, cabbies are bags of scum, tooth-aches stake out prime oral real estate and our newly arrived narrator, corpulent English consumer John Self, is wont to withhold and hamfistedly tease us with the narrative. It would be wrong to say that it’s dense or overwritten, better that it’s teeming with one and million one in a millions – but the effect is the same.
By the time a mirror ‘looks on, unimpressed,’ one can’t help free-styling in the Amis fashion.
The doorknob turned almost too easily. As
if it knew. The Douche was out of the bag
now. The wank I took before lunch hadn’t
worked. My testicles were tingling,
Crotch buoyant. Spunk-juggling.
This was just a few pages in.
But whilst he may leave a spongy flank exposed to parody, Amis is unquestionably a master stylist. Here he writes with an attentive viciousness, a sadistic relish. People and situations are mercilessly reduced to nubs of brutal shiny truth. It sounds like bullying and it is. If you can buy into it, it can be thrilling to stalk the halls, if you can’t it will seem a brash and ultimately pointless exercise in power. You could make the case that this is a textual reflection of the age or of Self’s predicament but that would only make it clever, not worthwhile. In search of respite I skipped forward a hundred or so pages.
You might wonder how this is possible. What of the plot? It’s been said, and it applies here, that Amis is a great novelist looking for a story. What story there is is telegraphed in the first couple of dozen pages. Self has arrived in New York to make a movie but was informed as he left England that his girlfriend, an avaricious ‘hot bitch’ named Selina, is cheating on him, ‘a lot’. He gorges himself on the excesses of the age, whilst trying to get a grip on the film and its cast. Characters plod through familiar arcs and all the while he is harassed by Frank, a mysterious phone stalker who blames Self for ruining his life. The movie will fail, Frank’s somehow metaphysical nature will be revealed, Self’s belief in money will play itself out. Things could go one way or another but you never really feel it’s much of an issue. That you can skip so much and re-orientate yourself so quickly is testament to the weakness of the story but also to the abstract appeal of Amis’ writing.
Ultimately the book feels too much like a contrivance; a meta-narrative on money, the decline of western civilization, the cultural shifts of the 80s and, when Martin Amis himself appears, on the novel as an art form. The insights are plentiful but the speed and frequency with which they come leaves them without mass, without weight. It seems to comment on certain trends whilst embodying them utterly. Again, some may be able to overlook these problems and for them this could be a fantastic book. But it’s an act of generosity and generosity is hardly in the spirit of the thing.