Martin and Martina

Ian Hamilton

  • Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
    Cape, 352 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 224 02276 8

‘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.’

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