‘Dollar bills, pound notes, they’re suicide notes. Money is a suicide note.’ So says John Self, the hero of Money: A Suicide Note, and what he means is that money is destroying him. Self-destruction (along with several of its hyphenated pals: indulgence, interest, loathing) has become Self’s hobby, what he does in his spare time, and what he spends his money on. But it’s money’s fault that this is what he spends his money on. It’s money’s fault that he hasn’t got anything better to do with his spare time. ‘The yobs are winning,’ said a character in Martin Amis’s Success, and one could almost take this as the ‘burden’ of his work so far. In earlier books, there have been yobs aplenty, and from the beginning Amis has scrutinised the species with some ardour. With John Self, though, he shifts the enemy to centre-stage, so that this time he can give him a real going-over.
When the book opens, Self has just arrived in New York to direct a big-money feature film, called Good Money. Back home in London, he has won a small reputation for his scandalous TV commercials (extolling the pleasures of junk food, tobacco, porno mags etc), and he has even collected an Italian prize for a short documentary called Dean Street. He is one of the new men, the uneducated media slicksters who took over in the Sixties, a practitioner and a product of junk culture. If he hears you say that you’re going to Stratford to see the two gentlemen of Verona, he’ll think you’re getting a prize too. Self makes lots of money but he ‘pisses it away’ – on rubbish food, rubbish booze and rubbish sex. He needs money very badly, but he can’t control it. ‘I love giving money away,’ he confides in us. ‘If you were here now, I’d probably slip you some cash.’ ‘Oh, money, I love you. You’re so democratic. You even things out for me and my kind.’
Although he has a spare-time problem, Self likes things that are fast. He doesn’t quite know why, except that this happens to be the momentum of the moment: get rich quick, if you’re not quick you’re dead.
The future’s futures have never looked so rocky. Don’t put money on it. Take my advice and stick to the present. It’s the real stuff, the only stuff, it’s all there is, the present, the panting present.
Thus, the things he is hooked on are short-term and money-based – like jumboburgers and pornography. And although Self is fat and ugly and in terrible physical condition, he’s a fast talker – he can always ‘gimmick’ a quick deal and (by using his head) foreshorten a yob punch-up. He’s 35, mid-Atlantic and of shallow parentage: his father has recently invoiced him for the cost of his upbringing. His grandfather was an inept though dedicated counterfeiter – he made money.
Self has an English girlfriend, Selina. She’s in it for the money, too. He loves her ‘brothelly know-how and her top-dollar underwear’ and he gives her money if she dresses up like the girls in the wank-mags he’s addicted to. ‘While making love, we often talk about money. I like it. I like that dirty talk.’ He knows he loves Selina: the ‘thrilling proof, so rich in pornography’ is that she does ‘all this not for passion, not for comfort, far less for love ... she does all this for money. I love her corruption.’ Loving her as he does, though, Self is susceptible to bouts of torment; it is Selina who haunts him ‘during the black hours, when I am weak and scared’. To prevent this happening, he keeps on giving her more money.
For a new man, one of the new princes of our culture, John Self gets weak and scared quite often – and never more so than when he is in the USA, the money-capital, the source, the shrine. This time, he arrives jet-lagged, drunk and gorged on airline hospitality (he loves airline food and has plans for opening an airline-food restaurant in London) and also anguished by the thought of Selina’s near-proven infidelity. In other words, a wreck. And from this point on, it’s downhill all the way. The junk life Self leads in London can here be magnified tenfold, and he plunges into it face first: ‘I gave her all my face, and it’s a face that can usually face them down, wide and grey, full of adolescent archaeology and cheap food and junk money, the face of a fat snake, bearing all the signs of its sins.’
The big-money film deal gives Self the chance to exercise self-interest, but here there is a razor-thin separation between art and life. The movie stars he has to deal with are all freaks – money-freaks, naturally, but also ego-freaks, self-freaks. To humour them, Self must self-abase somewhat, because of money. But then, because of money, he has become quite good at this, over the years. The film’s chief money-man, Fielding Goodney, is a freak also: but he’s a freak of physical well-being, the kind of manufactured self that Self would pay big money for if selves could actually be bought and sold. Perhaps they can. ‘He turned and I felt the rush of his health and colour – his Californian, peanut-butter body-tone.’ Fielding’s eyes are ‘supercandid cornflower blue’, he has a ‘high droll forehead’; he is both athlete and operator, his money is both old and new. He, too, is a self-indulger, but he is in control, undamaged; he has style. Self dreams of going out to California to get a full-scale body transplant: if he does, he will ask them to fix him up with a Fielding.
Self knows what he sees in Fielding: but what does Fielding see in him? It was Fielding who hired him, and it is Fielding who now supplies him with fat bundles of cash, first-class air tickets, high-tab dinners, chauffeur-driven limos, and so on. Fielding is money. No matter that he also seems to be going out of his way to abet Self’s self-destruction – he humiliates him on the tennis court, takes him for a walk in Harlem, gets him low-grade drunk in high-grade restaurants: the point is that Fielding does these things with style, and Self, who has no style, is hypnotised. At one point, Self asks Fielding if he does much reading. Fielding says he does, and that he likes the sound and the fury. Self is baffled by this enigmatic answer, but he lets it pass.
As soon as John Self arrives in New York, he starts getting anonymous telephone calls; well, not quite anonymous: ‘Just call me Frank.’ Frank also says, ‘I’m the guy whose life you fucked up,’ and he regularly taunts Self for his drunkenness and gluttony. He berates him, too, for his attitudes to women: at one point, he sends him a present – it’s a doll-sized plastic woman with an open mouth. Frank claims to be an aggregate of all those whom Self has treated brutishly since childhood. Somehow he knows all Self’s moves – rather better than Self does, very often, since Self’s memory is blurred and sometimes cancelled out by drink. Frank knows how many porno palaces he has visited, how many massage-parlour handjobs he has purchased, how many bottles and burgers he has hogged. Is there a connection between Frank the Phone and the tall, red-haired lady in a veil who seems to be following him round town? If there is, Self can’t ever quite muster the mental energy to work it out.
Nor does he have the wits to figure out the role of Doris Arthur, the feminist scriptwriter hired by Fielding to work on Good Money. At first, Self treats her just like any other chick. He makes a lunge and is frostily rebuffed. Fielding tells him that this was because she is a lesbian, and this effectively disposes of Self’s interest in her. Why is it, though, that Doris Arthur’s script, when it eventually arrives, seems calculated to kill off the film? Each of Self’s big stars has an obsession: Lorne Guyland, erstwhile sex-symbol, has insisted that he gets the girls and wins the fights, and that he be portrayed as a world-famous connoisseur of art; Butch Beausoleil won’t be seen doing any housework – not even wiping fingerprints off doorknobs; Spunk Davis, health-freak and charity worker, has demanded a no-decadence clause in his contract; Caduta Massi has a thing about fertility and wants the script to supply her with some extra offspring. In Doris Arthur’s finished screenplay, Lorne is senile, a sexual flop and totally illiterate; Butch spends most of her time swabbing toilets and ironing G-strings; Spunk, quite wrecked by his intake of junk food, is discovered, in close-up, goosing waifs down at the local orphanage; Caduta is barren – her big scene requires her to wander across a limitless grey desert, mocked by the distant sound of children’s laughter. ‘Someone’s fucking me around,’ cries Self. But who? And why? Thirty-five pages earlier, Doris herself had told him who and why but he had been too drunk to take it in. All he knows is that Good Money has gone bad.
At moments like this, it is Self’s habit to turn to the reader. He has been chatting to us from the start, with lines like ‘I’d better give you the low-down on Selina – and quick’ or ‘Memory’s a funny thing, isn’t it? You don’t agree? I don’t agree either.’ And he usually seems fairly confident that we’ll be on his side: ‘I’m touched by your sympathy (and want much, much more of it. I want sympathy, even though I find it so very hard to behave sympathetically).’ But then we have access to Self’s inner self. We know about those quiet moments in the whore-house when he is hit by a wavelet of revulsion: ‘You know, I suspect I’m not cut out for brothels. I can’t help getting engaged on the human scale, minimal though this is, fight it though I do, I just can’t get off the scale.’ (It should perhaps be said that, behaviour-wise, he doesn’t do too badly in this instance, ending up with ‘one of those handjobs where you go straight from limpness to orgasm, skipping the hard-on stage’.)
We know too about his crying jags, his entreaties that we might help him to ‘make sense of things’:
I mean look at my private culture. Look at the state of it. It really isn’t very nice in here. And that is why I long to burst out of the world of money and into – into what? Into the world of thought and fascination. How do I get there? Tell me, please. I’ll never make it by myself. I just don’t know the way.
Well, between him and us, we’re not quite sure that this is so. After all, whose eloquence is this? Self’s powerful soliloquies reveal an imaginative self rich (yes, rich) in metaphor, irony and farcical good humour – a literary self which, as the outer Self would put it, has somehow gimmicked a smart tie-up between low slang and high figurative artifice. Sometimes the tie-up comes out sounding like Holden Caulfield done over by Micky Spillane, but at its best it’s not like anybody else: an urban-apocalyptic high fever somehow kept steady, helped across the road, by those old redoubtables – wit, worldly wisdom, and an eye for social detail.
I strode through meat-eating genies of subway breath. I heard the ragged hoot of sirens, the whistles of twowheelers and skateboarders, pogoists, gocarters, windsurfers. I saw the barrelling cars and cabs, shoved on by the power of their horns. I felt all the contention, the democracy, all the italics in the air.
New York is bright red; London is dark grey:
As I zipped myself up, a pigeon clockworked past on the pavement eating a chip. A chip. Like horseflies and other creatures who direct and star in their own tiny films, the pigeon lived in fast motion. It naturally preferred fast food. City life was happening everywhere ... Flies get dizzy spells and bees have booze problems. Robin redbreasts hit the deck with psychosomatic ulcers and cholesterol overload. In the alleys, dogs are coughing their hearts out on snout and dope. The stooped flowers in their sodden beds endure backpinch and rug-loss, what with all the stress about. Even the microbes, the spores of the middle air, are finding all this a little hard on their nerves.
Self can also come up with softer, more elegiac hues:
I walk more in the streets now. I ... This morning in the sunshine I saw a pale boy, three or four years old or however old kids are these days, wheeled by his father in a hoodless pram. The boy wore thick glasses with thick black rims. Like the pram the specs were cheap. Unhinged, they slipped from the child’s pale ears and he groped at this thing on his face, gazing up, appealing to his father, who was thirty-odd, skinny and had long skinny hair, T-shirt, winded denims. The child’s face had the gently suffering look you sometimes get among the pale, the small, the hard of seeing: he showed his milky teeth, the expression rapt, expectant, forming a rightful entreaty. The father made his brisk adjustments – not unkindly, no, not at all. The child’s pale hand was raised and with its fingertips lightly steadied the darker, busier hand ... I took this hard, the eyes so old so soon, and coupled to that pale, forbearing thing.
How then might this inner Self break out into real life: is real life really worth the effort? In the novel two possible assistants are on hand. In London, there is a writer called Martin Amis. Self has met him once or twice and found him rather priggish, full of mini-sermons about moral choice. Even so, after the Doris Arthur disaster, he needs a script-doctor in a hurry, and even the puritanical M. Amis can’t resist (or so it seems) the mega-bucks. Amis signs up, ingeniously rewrites the script so that each of the stars is mollified, and from time to time treats Self to his musings on the ‘moral philosophy of fiction’: ‘When I create a character and put him through certain ordeals, what am I up to – morally?’ What indeed? And can we really blame Self for not rumbling this one? ‘The further down the scale he is,’ Amis continues, ‘the more liberties you can take with him. You can do what the hell you like to him, really. This creates an appetite for punishment. The author is not free of sadistic impulses.’ But Self isn’t listening. He wants his script; he wants his money.
The reader, of course, now knows something else that poor Self doesn’t know. We know that he now has a ‘double innocence’. As Amis tries to tell him, the characters in novels are doubly to be pitied: ‘They don’t know why they’re living through what they’re living through. They don’t even know they’re alive.’ Not knowing, Self can only listen to so much of this kind of thing. He tries to get Amis to tell him something about his private life, but the novelist won’t talk. The nearest the two of them get to calling a truce is when they sit down together to watch the Royal Wedding on TV. Self cries his eyes out, but when he is allowed to steal a glance at Amis, he notices that the novelist isn’t looking too good, either. He sees ‘a grey tear glint in those heavy eyes’. Maybe Martin is a bit like him, after all: ‘If I stare into his face I can make out the areas of waste and fatigue, the moonspots and boneshadow you’re bound to get if you live in the 20th century.’
There are those who do not have this wasted look. Lady Di doesn’t, nor does Self’s other likely helpmate, the American Martina Twain. People like Di and Martina, Self opines,
have a colour. You never see them in the streets, not in the streets plural. That colour, it looks like the sheen of health or sun or gimmicked youth but it is only the colour of money. Money softens the fall of life, as you know. Money breaks the fall. Anyway, Martin hasn’t got that colour. And neither have I. And neither have you. Shake.
The thing about this kind of money is that it is old money. It hasn’t been scrambled for, and the people who have it usually know what to do with it. ‘Money makes you innocent when it’s been there all along.’ Martina Twain had been a fellow – student of Self’s at film school, but he had always considered her out of his league: ‘She’s class, with a terrific education on her.’ Why then does she seem to be taking such an interest in him – this transatlantic, female Martin A.? She tries to get him to read books, she takes him to operas and art galleries, she offers him white wine and persuades him to cut down to two packs of cigarettes a day. Self can’t make her out: after all, she’s a chick, and very good-looking, and yet when he tries to introduce her into his pornographic mind-movie she doesn’t seem to fit. ‘The thing about Martina is that I can’t find a voice to summon her with.’ Like Martin Amis, she has a taste for philosophical discussion – and, for all he knows, she too might be trying to alert him to his plight: ‘She talked about perception, representation and truth. She talked about the vulnerability of a figure unknowingly watched – the difference between a portrait and an unposed study. The analogous distinction in fiction would be that between the conscious and the reluctant narrator – the sad, the unwitting narrator.’ Sad and unwitting, Self tries to make an effort to improve himself for Martina, but the old junk life keeps tugging him back. His libido can’t cope with Martina’s wholesome sexual bounty. Pornography reclaims him and, thanks to Martin Amis’s new script, the film world propels him to the final depths. At the end of it all, he is back in London, broke and broken.
Martin Amis is waiting for him, and even he – the cunning inventor of Self’s woes – can’t help feeling a bit guilty: ‘I remembered Martin, here in my flat, standing over me and saying again and again in a clogged and wretched hush: “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” ’ With that said, Amis hoists himself back onto the title page and plays it cool. The subtlety of these final scenes – the teasing with notions of character, narrative and motivation – can only be done justice to by revealing the book’ s jigsaw of whodunnits, and I have already come too close to doing that. Money really needs to be read twice (at least): the first time for the sheer pleasure of encountering the grotesque and lovable John Self, for the laughs, the plot, the extraordinary urban atmospherics. The second time round (when, as Self would say, you are all laughed out) you can begin to relish the book’s marvellously intricate design: the chess motif, the cosmological perspectives, the Othello murmur, the weather vein, and so on. I am already persuaded that Money will be thought of for years to come as one of the key books of the decade.