As twentieth century fiction goes, few novels are as symptomatic of the times as Money - the novel perfectly critiques the rise of capitalism and to an extent celebrity culture, with inspiration being drawn from Amis’s work as a scriptwriter on the film Saturn 3. Critically acclaimed, Time Magazine named Money amongst its top 100 novels of all time.
In such a rich and complex novel there are always going to be a wide range of issues that might be discussed, for the purpose of this post I have picked out some of the topics that are central to the novel, and others that I find to be of greatest interest.
John Self and Capitalist Culture
Money depicts a world dominated by rampant capitalism, where deregulation of the financial industry has created a new social landscape. If over-indulgence and cultural degeneration mark this dawning age then in John Self we have the perfect anti-hero (note, the name ‘Self’ evokes two poems by Philip Larkin, “Self’s the Man” and “Money”).
Through most of the novel, Self pursues personal indulgence with little or no regard for the wider community, dragging himself through a cycle of accumulation, consumption, and ultimately gratification – the perfect model for the commodity age man. Self is a man bred on disposable culture and “stupefied by having watched too much television”, his narration is schizophrenic, jumping from one thought to another, and he appears to have "no informing ideology of the way he lives". Amis, like Dostoevsky, is more concerned with how his characters view the world than how the world views his characters. In this vein, Self’s narrative reflects his own beliefs. Much like Dostoevsky’s characters Self is afforded the opportunity to answer the author back, creating a multi-level dialogue with different ideological viewpoints, manifested between, and sometimes within, characters.
Self represents just one of a new wave of cash-rich, pleasure-oriented youngsters. Money is ‘God’ to his kind, a leveller against class and education, “You're so democratic: you've got no favourites. You even things out for me and my kind”. Indeed, Self actively disdains those who value culture above money, whilst at the same time trying to break into their circles – an acknowledgement perhaps that money can only elevate one so far. Of course, Self finds culture incomprehensible for the most part (e.g., his literal interpretation of Animal Farm and other uneducated Orwellian references). There is a tension here, as those with new money increasingly rub shoulders with the cultured classes. As Self marks after behaving badly in a restaurant, “I suppose it must have been cool for people like them in places like this before people like us started coming here. But we’re here to stay”.
By the end of the novel the readers perspective has shifted, no longer aligned with the sneering author, whose literary abasements have bought Self to his lowest point, but instead identifying with Self on a humanistic level as he struggles to get to grips with his penniless existence in a world run on money. Interestingly, even before the shift in perspective, it is hard for the modern reader to harbour a moral authority over Self – we are all too complicit in the consumerist model to attempt any such thing. Indeed, throughout the novel the possibility of cultural and moral authority is questioned and it is gently suggested that morality may eventually be determined by the market – a sobering thought. This ultimate power of money and the lack of alternatives is reminiscent of the black humour displayed in 1960s American fiction by authors like Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon.
Sex and Gender Issues
Martin Amis has often come under fire for his representation of women and gender issues in his novels. This is inevitably the case with Money, a novel where pornography permeates every level of the society depicted, and where the main character approaches any type of physical intimacy like a financial transaction.
The passivity of central female characters such as Selina Street and Martina Twain, and their willingness to remain within the patriarchal gender boundaries has been criticised by some commentators. Equally maligned is the inherent sexism of Self as he bounces between the Neanderthal atmosphere of the Shakespeare pub in London and the macho-competitive world of Manhattan and the movie industry. Even beyond Self, who judges women’s worth on a purely superficial level, many characters objectify women, perhaps most troublingly in some cases (Vron, Butch) women objectify themselves.
However, whilst there is an argument to say that the female characters are too passive and submissive to the male characters I would tend to disagree that this points to an intrinsic sexism. John Self is clearly built in the cave man mould and thus one would expect that he surround himself with the submissive stereotype that fits his picture of womanhood. Besides which it is hard to imagine an enlightened and progressive woman being prepared to tolerate Self’s attitudes and share their time with him. Whenever Self expresses his misogynist views around this culturally aware breed of women (e.g. Doris Arthur) he receives a sharp rebuke.
Self is happier around women, like Selina, who speak his language. Far from being the submissive archetype Selina is arguably the character who has best adapted to the world she inhabits. She uses her most powerful commodity, sex, to dominate Self, and later to provide financial security for herself, by falling pregnant and extracting maintenance payments from Alec. Martina too shows it is possible to adapt to the modern consumerist world and maintain integrity by marrying the worlds of culture and money – something Self cannot do. Indeed, one could argue that many of the women in the novel are better adapted than their male counterparts to the demands of a fiercely consumerist world.
It’s easy to see why many women have been offended by Money and why some reviewers have claimed that it’s simply a man’s novel. However, I can only read it from my own perspective as a man, and personally I felt the sexism that ran through the book was representative of the novel’s central character and the world that conditioned him. Far from being a negation of the author’s progressive credentials, I felt the novel sneered at Self’s boorish opinions and the increasing sexualisation of the mainstream. If there is a significant submissive theme running through the novel it is surely that we are all, ultimately, submissive to money.
Britain’s Place in the World
As well as the cultural shifts within society Money also reflects on Britain’s changing position in the world, from one of the preeminent players to a status more reflective of its size and waning economic power. It also considers the emergence of an Anglo-American society with Britain, like John Self, stuck in a mid-Atlantic personality crisis.
It’s clear from Amis’s comparative descriptions of a “watery and sparse” London and a New York with “success in its ozone”, that the reader should mark Britain’s decline in comparison with its Atlantic neighbour’s ascent to pre-eminence.
Indeed, Martin Amis has commented on the confidence America displays as a nation in comparison to Britain:
"Nineteenth century England is the time of our big novels, our centre-of-the-world novels. That imperial confidence has now shifted to America and you think quite cold-bloodedly, quite selfishly, I want some of that. I want that amplitude that is no longer appropriate to England"
Matin Amis, the Character
In a move considered by some an arrogant indulgence and by others a stroke of post-modern irony, Amis includes himself as a character in Money. Some critics have argued Amis’s inclusion as a character undermines the novel’s function as a social critique by stressing the fact of fiction; others still have suggested the inclusion is simply to make clear that John Self is in no way autobiographical.
The authorial inclusion is not uncommon in postmodern literature and, whilst feeling mildly clunky (for example, the character is referred to as “Martin Amis” long after his introduction, when another character would have been addressed simply as “Martin”), the presence of Amis within the novel provides for some fascinating exchanges of dialogue with Self and a chance to play with Amis’ meta-fictionally inherent role in Self’s downfall. More than that the fact that Amis implicates himself within the world his characters inhabit suggests his own complicity in capitalist society. When Self persuades Amis (the character) to re-write his screenplay by offering increasing amounts of money we are shown very clearly that no one, not even Amis (the character or author) is outside the socio-economic framework of the capitalist world, suggesting that even the author’s authority is far from absolute.
When asked about his inclusion in the novel Amis suggests it is more than simply an attempt to distance himself from his central character:
“I was wondering whether I put “me” in there because I was so terrified of people thinking I was John Self. But actually I’ve been hanging around the wings of my novels, so awkwardly sometimes, like the guest at the banquet, that I thought I might jolly well be there at last. Also, every character in this book dupes the narrator, and yet I am the one who has actually done it all to him”
From this point of view the authorial intrusion appears as a reaction against traditional narrative form, an acknowledgement of its evolution.
Shakespeare and Motive
Money is steeped in literary references, but perhaps the most significant is the recurring allusion to Shakespeare and specifically Othello, which acts as an ironic intertextual reference in relation to Self’s exploitation. Shakespeare is referred to at several points, the name of Barry Self’s pub of course and in relation to cheap adverts Self has produced. Shakespeare is an interesting reference in two ways. Firstly, as a symbol of cultural aspiration and high art, something Self strives for but never fully appreciates. Secondly, as an extent to which the world has been commoditized. Shakespeare, the brand, a by-word for culture and sophistication, used [by Self] to sell fried snacks and just about anything else.
Othello is referred to at several points during the novel. Most significantly, after watching an operatic performance of Othello, Self misunderstands much of the story. In the parallel world of Money Fielding and to an extent Amis are cast as Iago, whereas Self is very much the manipulated Roderigo.
The comparison to Iago is an important one in understanding the core of the novel. As in much of Amis’s fiction (London Fields, Night Train), lack of motive is a central theme. As a reflection of modern life motive, the why, becomes the unanswered question. The aimlessness and random cruelty of both Fielding and Amis perfectly reflects the mood of modern society, whilst at the same time pointing back to Iago’s motiveless role in Othello.