– Penguin Books, London, 2000
Read from October 16th to November 7th 2014.
The palimpsest technique
I laughed myself silly reading Martin Amis’s Money. On the bus on my way to work, or in the metro on my way to University, wherever I happened to start reading, I burst out laughing. It was however challenging to discover where the comedy came from: was it a genuine laughter fed by traditional techniques, so to speak, such as situation, language, names, characters? Or did it answer some subconscious expectations of mine with its fine parody not only of a world of money exchange but also of a world of words exchange?
I think that one of the greatest qualities of Amis’s novel is exactly this clever shift from text to metatext without changing the tone, this world fair that becomes unexpectedly the word fair. While there is many a writer that exploited various comic techniques to describe one or other of the two universes, how many focused simultaneously on both? I mean, there is such a perfect blend between plot and meta-plot that at one moment a doubt arises as per who invented who: the author his narrator or the other way around. Let’s see.
The world of the novel is seen through the eyes of its narrator, John Self, thirty-five, who, like all his generation (of the eighties, of all time) worships with his money (of which he has plenty) three gods, which are not only his reason of being but also his explanation for all zany situations he restores afterwards from disparate clues and pains in the ass (literally!) that give an incomplete but funny idea of what must have happened:
I found a three-pack of condoms in my wallet, two joint-ends in my turn up, and a cocktail stick in my rug. Is it any wonder I’ve got a boil on my ass? It must be the booze, it must be the junk, it must be all the pornography
There is a comically philosophical resignation in this final enumeration that identifies the source of all evils that haunt him, a cartoonish desolation often amplified by visual gags, in the true lineage of black and white comedy films:
…I went off on a run that it would have taken me all the way downtown – further, to the Village, to Martina Twain – if the desert trolley hadn’t been there to check my sprint. The whole restaurant cheered me on as I fought my way out into the night.
Other times the hero struggles (literally again) with culture, identifying reading with pain (of eyes while following words, of nose while wearing glasses), describing the physical effort of going from page to page (from thirty-one to thirty-three and thirty-five “not to mention the even numbers”), or having the epiphany that “opera really lasts” (for after a first long half, he expects a second one to follow). His extensive knowledge helps him to recognize that the Rimbo one of his friends was talking about is probably a French writer named Rambeau or Rambot (who, he recalls, had a friend with a wine-like name – maybe Bordeaux), and to help find the meaning of “Aesthetics” in a discussions he had with his dentist (who said about a bad tooth: ‘the aesthetics are going to cost you on this one’)
Living in a perpetual hangover does not prevent him to notice a writer who makes him uncomfortable in the beginning (a forewarning, of course) but whose name, Martin Amis, he envies and borrows one time, in a parodic confusion not only of the author with the narrator, but also of the whole authorship concept. For the plot follows John, who wants to become the author of a movie so absurdly autobiographic that it transforms him in a character created by Martin Amis who is asked to write the script. A mise en abyme here, definitely, but which one is the frame and which one is within it – John’s film or John’s life or Martin’s script? From which point is the better look? For in the end, over a chess game (and in a parody of a detective story), Martin will explain to John why his film and his life collapsed, claiming the ironclad rule that states the character’s fate depends on its creator:
‘Zugzwang,’ he said.
‘What the fuck does that mean?’
‘Literally, forced to move. It means that whoever has to move has to lose. If it were my turn now, you’d win. But it’s yours. And you lose.’
But, like a Pirandello’s character, our hero refuses to sign his suicide note and breaks free from the end of the book as it had been thought, spooking his Martin Amis who catches a glimpse of him – where else? – in a bar. Despoiled of his money (and his life plot) John Self is stubborn enough to live, challenging thus the powers of his maker, while claiming his own immortality:
I still cry and babble and holler a lot, but then I always did. I drink and have fights, and gangway through the streets. I am still inner city.
Martin Amis (I mean, of course, the Martin Amis in the book) becomes thus as much an invention of the narrator as the narrator is his, in a clever overwriting of scenes and characters and plots that encourages the ludical change of meanings and perspectives in order to simultaneously reveal either the text of the metatext and the metatext of the text.