June/July/Aug 2012

Capital Punishment

Martin Amis's prison of Money

Troy Patterson


CRUELLY LUCID, VIRTUOSIC in weighing morality with a composed sneer, Martin Amis’s fifth novel, Money: A Suicide Note (1984), stands as the first full expression of his art. His latest book, Lionel Asbo, which will be published this August, reads as Money’s thematic sequel. A portrait of an underclass thug who wins the lottery, Asbo amplifies the earlier novel’s hyperbolic farce. Amis published Money as a London resident exploring both British blight and American seediness as exemplified by the old Times Square. He publishes the new book, subtitled State of England, after settling his family in Brooklyn, encouraging us to imagine the gesture as a kiss-off to the Queen, just in time for her Diamond Jubilee. The two books make a twin set of volumes about lucre and filth.

Both books’ nonheroes are Brits with prole accents, smothered consciences, and shame-generating sadistic streaks. Money’s John Self is a publican’s son turned director of nihilistic TV commercials: “I’m the new kind, the kind who has money but can never use it for anything but ugliness.” Touching down in New York to prepare his first feature-length film, Self encounters a trick question at JFK: “Business or pleasure?” His professional concerns—crafting “controversial TV ads for smoking, drinking, junk food, and nude magazines”—mirror his private pastimes, it turns out: “I realize, when I can bear to think about it, that all my hobbies are pornographic in tendency. The element of lone gratification is bluntly stressed.” There is an element of dependency to Self’s binges, but the disease is more cultural than chemical. “I am addicted,” he says, “to the twentieth century.”

In Self’s head, “the jabber of money” (“the blur on the top rung of a typewriter—£%¼@=&$!—sums, subtractions, compound terrors and greed”) vies with “the voice of pornography.” The latter noise is, to his ears, the insistent hum of all sex. His every relationship commodified, Self is at his most solitary in the company of hired lovers (one recalls the passage in Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch-22 describing his trip with Amis to a New York brothel: research). In London, he lavishly torments Selina Street, a gold digger pushing him to open a joint checking account. “I like going to bed with her when going to bed with me is the last thing she wants,” says Self. He adores her corruption, her self-debasement: “You know where you are with economic necessity.”

“You know where you are in prison,” says Lionel Asbo in a near echo. He would know. Lionel reads as Amis’s vilest yob yet (his surname is an allusion to Tony Blair’s controversial Anti-Social Behavior Orders). The youngest son of a woman who was, at age nineteen, a mother of seven, he began his long string of run-ins with the law at age three: “A childish interest in cruelty to animals was perhaps only to be expected, but Lionel went further, and one night made a serious attempt to torch a pet shop.” At twenty-four, Asbo wins a nine-figure lottery fortune and finds himself cursed with new knowledge: “Money, money (his sole and devouring preoccupation since infancy), was now meaningless to him.” Thus his mental path is paved for a ride into extravagant evil. In Money, in a nod to the torture chamber in Orwell’s 1984, Amis installed Self in a hotel room numbered 101, and money-greed resembled a prison. Lionel is free of that pen but likewise locked up in desolate self-gratification. His libido deformed—squashed at his old station at the bottom edge of society—he prefers what Self would call “video nasties”: “You can’t go far wrong with the porn,” Lionel says. “It’s like prison. You know where you are with the porn.”

The figurative idiom of Money is pegged to the dollar, as when Martin Amis pops into a pub as a character and Self sloppily knocks his table: “His drink wobbled, like a coin, but he caught it.” The language of Lionel Asbo proceeds with a similar insistence, but this time the symbols point to the stars and the moon. Lionel’s nephew, for instance, tracks the motion of his “astronomical uncle” through the tabloid heavens as the papers recount the lucky winner’s ejections from august hotels and disgraces at distinguished restaurants. Granted the time to think but bereft of anything to think about, Lionel is oppressed by the “heaviness” of the furniture, the cutlery, the tradition. He retreats first to a rock-star hotel (swimming pool, minibar), then into supernova celebrity, then the dark-star horror of remorseless savagery. Sizing up the media culture that the John Selves of the world designed, pitching his voice somewhere between Dickensian melodrama and J. G. Ballard dystopia, Amis squints contemptuously at the dimming sun of the British Empire.

Money treats the sensation of money as the blur at the top of the typewriter. Lionel Asbo looks elsewhere on the keyboard at a moment when Lionel tries to reconcile his unearned wealth with his ugly sense of self-worth: “The internal question mark, like a rusty hook, snagged in his innards.” Interrogating himself, he looks into his soul and learns that his money’s no good there.

Troy Patterson is the television critic at Slate. He is working on a history of carousing.

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