Ulysses, a colleague of mine once deftly observed, “is the novel of the 20th century.” I don’t know whether or not this is the case because I haven’t read Joyce’s masterpiece, but since my associate has impeccable taste in literature and seems to have read everything, I am inclined to take his word for it.
For those of you nursing delusions of reading Joyce, I feel obliged to remind you that reading and comprehending are two different activities. Many novels are easy to read and difficult to understand. Joyce, however, elevated himself to a new plateau: his novels are difficult to read and impossible to understand.
Vanity, of course, prohibited me from confessing my philistinism at the time. Instead I responded, “Ulysses may indeed be the novel of the 20th century, but Martin Amis’s Money is the best novel about the 20th century.”
I didn’t think much of this assertion at the time; it was merely a knee-jerk reaction intended to disguise my failure to read — and understand — Joyce. The demands of employment soon intervened and the conversation evaporated before my thought could be properly explored. Upon reflection, however, I realized that I had been right: Martin Amis’s Money is, in fact, the best novel about the 20th century.
Hang your head and weep if you have never heard of Martin Amis. He is the reigning monarch of Britain’s greatest literary dynasty and the current enfant terrible of contemporary letters. This did not happen by luck or by chance; Amis had the advantage of maturing in the shadow of his father’s towering genius. Amis pÃ©re, the indomitable Kingsley, is responsible for Lucky Jim, perhaps the funniest book ever published. In addition to producing a slew of novels, innumerable pages of fine criticism and several volumes of reasonably good poetry, Kingsley was a committed philanderer and a lifelong advocate of prolific binge-drinking.
To no one’s surprise, Amis fils inherited much of his father’s talent. His substantial literary output began in 1974, before his 24th birthday, with The Rachel Papers, a devastatingly accurate examination of teenage angst and sexual immaturity. To be fair, given his familial composition (Amis’s stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard, was also a successful novelist), there was never any real question that Amis’s first novel would be published: “most publishers would have taken it,” he explained, if only “out of mercenary curiosity.”
Although he undoubtedly exploited his father’s connections in the beginning, Amis’s subsequent literary career has exculpated him from accusations of coattail riding. His 11 novels, several collections of essays, brilliant memoir and a stinging condemnation of Lenin and Stalin have all been enthusiastically received. Even Yellow Dog, his “worst” novel, which Tibor Fischer hilariously compared to a “favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating,” is better than most contemporary fiction.
Amis was a sensation from the beginning. His early writings were widely trumpeted. The Rachel Papers earned him the prestigious Somerset Maugham Prize, and his second novel, Dead Babies, cemented his reputation as a formidable wit and unflinching explorer of society’s debased underbelly. He was not, however, catapulted into genuine celebrity until the 1984 release of Money. The novel’s success ensured his position as a fixture of both contemporary letters and the invasive British tabloids.
Money is probably Amis’s best novel. It begins with the strongest opening sentence I have ever read: “As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows.”
Amis’s writing is unbearably vivid: images flash by at warp speed and defy comprehension before settling down into a narrative of astonishing strength and vigour.
Â Money is a joyful book because it is terrifically well-written. Amis is perhaps the finest prose stylist of his generation and his writing is immediately distinguishable from that of his contemporaries. His formidable command of English and capacious vocabulary ensure that his prose carries a distinctive literary signature. Amis has always maintained that writers ought to avoid clichÃ©; regurgitated novelties and tired phrases, he believes, cheapen and debase the craft.
One sentence is sufficient demonstration of his commitment to this ethic. Amis’s willingness to employ untried and untested language resulted in a delightfully visceral and uproariously funny novel. Money demonstrates that Amis is simply better than most writers. Whereas many novelists are constrained by language, Amis exploits and manipulates it with ease.
Â The novel itself is a melancholy rumination on the manifest evil offered by the 20th century. Subtitled “A Suicide Note,” Money offers an entirely new perspective on the nature of humans in a century of decadence and depravity.
Amis’s protagonists tend to be anti-heroes and John Self is no exception. He is a fat British entrepreneur with an insatiable appetite for cigarettes, sex, pornography, fast food and intoxicants of all makes and models. “I’m not allergic to the 20th century,” Self says, “I am addicted to the 20th century.”
Â As he makes his indecorous way back and forth between London and New York in search of the best deal, the cheapest bargain, the biggest payoff, it becomes clear that Self is entirely devoid of restraint. His Weltanschauung is money, his life a lubricious plunge into an abyss of obscene profligacy and reptilian greed. His corrosive personality and destructive habits guide him down the vertiginous path of debauchery. He is a lecher and a crook, a thief and a liar, and he adores every moment of it.
Â Money is a story about money, an eerily prescient descent into post-apocalyptic finance. Ivan Karamazov contended that everything is permitted if God does not exist; John Self doesn’t care one way or another whether God exists and knows that everything is permitted if you have money. What Self doesn’t realize — and is perhaps incapable of realizing — is the inherent duality of addiction. Money, like alcohol and cocaine, is freighted with frightful corollaries; a man can only push it so far before it pushes back.