Analysis: Money by Martin Amis

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Money by Martin Amis book cover
If you are looking for a shorter review of Money try my post, Review: Money by Martin Amis

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.

Useful Links
Reviews of Money on Amazon (UK)
TV adaptation of Money on Amazon (UK)

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well Observed and To The Point!

bibliofreak said...

Thanks for the comment, it's great to know that people are reading already!

Megan said...

Hi, great blog! It looks very organised and I like how you have separated the reviews from the analyses. I sort of do something similar on my blog too.

I found you via Book Blogs and am now following!

Megan @ Storybook Love Affair

http://storybookloveaffair.blogspot.com

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Hi Megan - lovely to meet you. Book Blogs is certainly the place to connect with people! :)

I will stop by your blog and say hi in a moment, I'm glad you enjoyed your visit to Bibliofrek.net :)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful analysis. Well- presented and interesting offering to the reader a deep knowledge of the main issues of the novel.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks very much. It's one of the first posts I wrote for the blog, but seems to be one of the most popular. Glad you enjoyed it :)

mo pie said...

I just finished this novel and I loved reading your thoughts on it. I definitely agree that the female characters are troubling (the one character who does lay the smackdown on John Self turns out to be a lesbian--heterosexual women are all objects here, it seems) but I also agree that Self is an unreliable narrator, and that this depiction of the characters says far more about his worldview than anything else.

Also, interesting that there's a character named Martin A. and one named Martina. And that her last name is Twain. I have a feeling there's a lot to unpack here.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks mo pie, glad you enjoyed my slightly disjointed musings - did you enjoy Money?

The female characters are interesting/troubling but like you say, they are all seen through the prism of John Self's consciousness, which obviously gives them the pornographic slant. One of my friends pointed out that there was a lot of controversy about Amis's depiction of women before I read Money so I paid particular attention to it and, in honesty, I couldn't see any inherent sexism, just an awful lot of challenging ideas and comment.

I liked Martin Amis as a character, but I'm not sure I ever got to the bottom of Martina. Amis often pairs characters, and whilst I think I have a grip on Martina as a single character, I'm not sure I can say the same about the connection between her and Martin.

Oh well, definitely worth a re-read someday soon.

postgradpanopticon said...

Boxing Day and I finally finished it! I can now tell my old lecturer that women can/do like Martin Amis now. As I’ve said to you before, I am mostly amazed by the way in which he comes up with phrases that sound so natural and yet so original. Jealous.

Regarding your points on gender (and as a pintsize feminist), I have to say that I didn’t find this as harsh towards women as I’d been led to believe that it would be. I actually think it’s a pretty poor representation of men. With the exception of those frightening occasions you mentioned above - notably Vron *shudders*. Self sees the sadness in ‘pornography’ as he calls it, and is certainly not a figure anyone would want to emulate. He’s reluctant to spend any of his money - that he seemingly hasn’t worked for - he lives off fast food that often makes him ill, he can’t have sex even with the women he pays for, and he’s being willingly taken for a ride by Selina, as beautiful as she. His violence towards women is complacent, half-arsed and haphazard - and I think its Amis’ skill at black humour and phrasing that means that we laugh at him. Selina and the women around him seem so together and unphased by anything that he does, its as if he is made more diminutive by them.

At first I wasn’t sure what you meant by the female characters being willing to stay within patriarchal boundaries, but then on a second thought they are all staying within the stereotypical male ideal of women: judged on their physical appearance and sexual ability, they all use this as currency - which limits their role to sex objects. Is that a fair assessment? In your review you single out Doris - does she do this to Fielding, then? “In bed he is a woman” etc.

It’s a bit early at this stage for me to condemn Amis as a misogynist, though, sorry :P

In reference to the previous commenter, I was thinking throughout that Martin and Martina are connected in some way - although I’m not sure I’ve a coherent theory. It felt as though they were reflections of one another, in some way, showing up a side to the creative industry that Self is part of: Martin the producer and Martina the consumer. They are more delicate characters than others in the novel, and the Martin A./Martina thing could carry if ‘one’ thought about it a little more...

On a semi-related note, I loved that Self completely misunderstood Othello based on his own experience of women :)

I was also struck by the constant sickness etc, as though his body was rejecting his lifestyle. I’ll work on this, but I’d be interested to hear your opinion.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Minikin – you are to be congratulated! Not only for finishing your first Amis, but also for swooping in and claiming the title for best comment of 2012.

Ah, I do like to hear the views of pint-sized feminists; those regular-sized ones are a bit much with all their hair and thoughts, and flailing limbs. Terrible business. You seem to have got a very good handle on Money and all its sexy issues. I particularly like “His violence towards women is complacent, half-arsed and haphazard” – I think that probably represents the laziness of his approach to most things, as he complacently rolls through life without any strong convictions; mindless and eventually devoured by the age.

You’ve pretty much summed up my point on patriarchal roles exactly: the women don’t seek to break the gender roles and achieve success on a level with the men, but rather utilise their traditional roles to manipulate the men and achieve success/security through these means. Using their bodies as a commodity in the way you describe pretty much hits the nail on the head for me.

Can you explain the Doris point to me again? I’m not sure I follow the question, and you might have to elaborate a bit as I’ve not looked at the book for almost two years :)

And listen, if you don’t start condemning people (probably men, but women might work too) as misogynists soon, I’m going to seriously doubt your credentials as a feminist. I expect a treatise on why Santa Claus is the most abhorrent sexist icon in popular culture on my desk by next Thursday. Hop to it love - that’s only a week and your tiny lady brain is probably addled by festive chocolate intake and more sluggish than usual. ;)

I’d be interested to hear you thoughts on the Martin/Martina pairing – I think I’ll need to re-read the thing to develop any further thoughts on it, so I’m afraid I have nothing enlightening to add at the moment. There could be something to this producer/consumer business, talk to me about it and we’ll put our combined intellectual might to the task (I’ll bring the crayons).

Othello good, your point about his body rejecting his lifestyle better. That seems a very interesting way of expressing the unnatural state of his lifestyle and by extension consumerism in general. Well picked out – you’ve given me plenty more to think about.

Nada said...

Great article! I have an exam tomorrow (Contemporary British novel) and beside all the notes, this came really helpful :).