“Semper inops quicumque cupit”
(Whoever yearns is always poor)
During the 1950’s, an increasing number of middle Americans no longer took seriously the principle that honest work carefully performed is its own true reward. As the exhortative Vance Packard and a host of other social critics noted, these Americans defined themselves not by the work they did, but by the number of products they owned and by the way in which they passed their leisure hours. They tended not to worry about either the collapse of the Protestant Ethic or the assorted side effects of self-indulgence; they were, however, deeply concerned that perhaps old Jones next door was working even less and clearing more.
During the prosperous 60’s, countless novelists, moviemakers, and rock singers attacked money-grubbing and “conspicuous consumption.” But none simultaneously echoed Thomas Carlyle’s assertion that “all true work is sacred”; that “one Monster there is in the world—the idle man.” In fact, throughout the 60’s the opinion makers with the best access to the masses repeatedly indicated that the pursuit of pleasure was unquestionably the central aim of life and that true pleasure was almost always spontaneous, sensual, and “free.” The decade’s films were particularly full of “uptight” businessmen who finally tell off their tyrannical bosses and, donning blue jeans, head west in quest of the endless wave or the highest high.
The message took hold. Throughout the 70’s, those American industries that packaged or promised “fun” tended to prosper even as the rest of the economy struggled and the national debt soared. Marijuana farmers and cocaine salesmen did particularly well, as did the peddlers of what in the 40’s and 50’s would have been widely and derisively described as smut. By the mid-70’s, such explicit publications as Penthouse and Hustler were openly displayed on newsstands and in convenience stores; films with the most moronic of pornographic themes provoked no mockery and little discussion as they played in full theaters across the nation. Indeed, one of the decade’s most successful films, Emmanuel, centered on a wealthy young French woman who seeks to relieve her ennui not with a brisk walk or a couple of chocolate truffles, but by flying to Thailand and bedding down with half the population of Bangkok.
During the 70’s, money itself made a rousing comeback. After all, as Emmanuel proved, money can secure all sorts of thrills and diversions; it also confers considerable prestige—particularly at a time when, thanks to high interest rates and relatively high unemployment, money is scarce. By the early 80’s, television’s most popular melodramas focused on the maneuverings and indiscretions of assorted sun-belt millionaires, whose hairstyles and wardrobes continue to be extensively publicized and aped. The most widely publicized books promoted what Carlyle had denounced as the “Gospel of Mammonism”: they bore titles like Money Power and Aggressive Investing and waxed ecstatic about T-Bills, CD’s, and municipal bonds. Among the most sought-after public speakers were those platitudinarians whose motivational sermons were well-laced with gaudy images of the financial nirvana that awaits us all. Even ex-Yippie Jerry Rubin hit the lecture circuit to assure those “babyboomers” who had soaked up the pop-Marxist slogans of the 60’s that yes, it was now perfectly all right to be rolling in dough.
Martin Amis’ fifth novel, Money, is set in London and New York City in 1981. Its narrator-protagonist, John Self, informs us early on that his “dream in life” is simply “to make lots of money.” Self lives in London but grew up principally in the United States, where he says he acquired “the groundwork for my addictions to junk food, sweet drinks, strong cigarettes, advertising, all-day television—and, perhaps, to pornography and fighting.” Now 35, Self cynically directs television commercials for such dubious products as “a new kind of flashfriable pork-and-egg bap or roll or hero called a Hamlette”; he is also vaguely involved in the production of a film, Good Money, that is to be aimed at that large and lucrative audience that demands nothing more than limited dialogue and lots of sleaze. Because he is both well-connected and thoroughly vulgar. Self finds that—in his racket at least—”making money is a breeze.” He drives a high-priced, gizmo-studded sports car; in London he maintains what he describes without irony as “a kind of playboy pad.”
In his constant—automatic—pursuit of sexual gratification, Self frequents massage parlors, hires costly “takeout women” and—in bars—habitually sidles up to women who look drunk or vulnerable enough to tolerate his slurred and clumsy solicitations. Daily he finds time to visit at least one “porno-loop parlour” where even the most twisted of gents can find something to suit their tastes. Here, alone in a darkened cubicle, the jaded Self drops quarters into a video machine that throws up a steady stream of X-rated vignettes, including a few that feature scenes of bestiality and of “chicks getting roughed up.”
One of Self’s favorite eating spots in London is a Burger Den franchise that moved in where there once operated an Italian restaurant that had “linen tablecloths and rumpy, strict, blackclad waitresses.” The passing of this more idiosyncratic eatery does not trouble Self in the least; in fact—as the hawker of the Hamlette—he delights in the seemingly inexorable spread of all the Burger Dens and Burger Hutches and Burger Bowers of the world. “Fast food,” he recognizes, “equals fast money.”
Self blows considerable cash on booze. Often he is plastered by midafternoon; he concedes that “sleep is an exalted term for what I get up to nowadays. These are blackouts, bub.” Like many heavy drinkers and chronic shoppers, Self recognizes that his self-destructive compulsions are symptomatic of a life that is profoundly disordered and—in his- case—utterly, pathetically empty and friendless. And like many addicts, Self is much given to periods of intense self-loathing. Repeatedly he calls attention to his enormous gut, his “beady, scaly face”—to his assorted phobias and his absolute lack of self-control. “I wish someone had taught me self-discipline,” he notes after mentioning that he once heard Prince Charles observe that selfdiscipline seemed “absolutely essential to any kind of civilized existence.” This “someone,” Self muses, “could have taught me pride, dignity, and French too, while they [sic] were at it. I wouldn’t have had to lift a finger. But no one ever did teach me all that stuff. I’ve endeavored to teach it to myself I sit around trying to teach myself selfdiscipline. I can’t be doing with it, though (it just isn’t fun, selfdiscipline), and I always end up going out for a good time instead.”
Considerable self-discipline is, of course, also required of anyone who, like Martin Amis, aims to write seriously and well. Some hints in Money suggest that Self is partially Amis’—and perhaps every writer’s—Mr. Hyde. He is that shiftless, stubborn doppelgänger who most days must be dragged by the hair to the writing table. It is also evident that Amis wants us to recognize that Self is typical of those ubiquitous clods whose minds have been warped not only by pornography, but by the notion—expressed for many years in barracks and locker rooms—that women who are not in one’s family can be safely regarded as legitimate objects of prey.
It is more apparent that Amis wants us to see the crass, narcissistic Self as a plausible personification of the age in which he lives; to recognize that—as Self himself puts it—”my way is coming up in the world.” Self is a perfect sucker for the shallow images of the good life that movies, magazines, and advertisements incessantly provide; he is a thoroughgoing materialist most comfortable among those who “talk about money in that sharky American style, as if money were the only gauge of anything, the only measure.” He has no sense of the past and little interest in the future; he lives—anxiously, neurotically in what he calls “the panting present,” He concedes that he has been “cretinized” by television; that he cannot concentrate long enough to get through Orwell’s brief Animal Farm—a title, frequently mentioned in Money, that aptly describes the carnal, greedy milieu in which Self and his associates root and wallow.
Still, Self is not wholly repugnant. Many readers are likely to see him as simply an effectively rendered, modern-day version of the stage fat man—the sweating, fumbling buffer and puffer. Perhaps most will pity him when he describes the peculiar circumstances of his childhood; when he admits to being weak and miserable and desperate for help. “Look at my private culture,” he shouts at one point. “Look at the state of it. It really isn’t very nice in here. And that is why I long to burst out of the world of money and into—into what? Into the world of thought and fascination. How do I get there? Tell me, please. I’ll never make it by myself I just don’t know the way.”
Money, like John Self, is overweight: no reader is likely to wish it even a paragraph longer. But its depiction of our culture of mass consumption is unusually incisive; its design intricate, intriguing. And it is often quite funny, particularly on those occasions when a rather starched young writer called Martin Amis appears and thrusts and parries with the ludicrously self-inflated Self. Such scenes allow Amis to engage in a bit of amusing self-parody and—as is the fashion—to call close attention to the fictitiousness of his fiction.
Martin Amis is the son of Kingsley Amis, who is best known in America for comic novels like Lucky Jim and Take a Girl Like You. Martin Amis first achieved wide notice in 1973, when at 24 he published his first novel, an amusing but not terribly distinguished romp entitled The Rachel Papers. Anita Brookner, an accomplished art historian and practicing academic, did not publish her first novel—A Start in Life—until 1980, when she was close to 40. Since then, Brookner has produced three novels that have been well-received in both her native Britain and the United States. Indeed, Brookner’s earlier novels have recently been published in paperback and can even be found in the little “literature” sections of small-town, shopping mall B. Dalton stores.
Edith Hope, the central figure in Brookner’s fourth novel, Hotel du Lac, would not comfortably pass an evening in the company of John Self Miss Hope is a tweedy, soft-spoken English novelist who is more than a little put off by the vulgarities of the modern age. She loathes the word “lifestyle,” for example, and refuses to pack her novels with the sort of obligatory sex scenes that her agent insists help “reassure” young women that “being liberated is fun.” Edith, an unapologetic romantic, keeps her heroines fully clothed—and bathed in moonlight.
Hoping to complete her latest novel, Edith travels to Lake Geneva and to the Hotel du Lac—”a traditional establishment, used to welcoming the prudent, the well-to-do, the retired, the self-effacing, the respected patrons of an earlier era of tourism.” There are no sun lamps or vibrating beds at the Hotel du Lac—no sauna rooms or ice cube machines. Here, no one would pad the corridors in water wings or bikini, or linger long in the austere downstairs bar. For “it was strongly implied that prolonged drinking, whether for purposes of business or as a personal indulgence, was not comme il faut, and if thought absolutely necessary should be conducted either in the privacy of one’s suite, or in one of the more popular establishments where such leanings were not unknown.”
In this discreet establishment, Edith finds herself distracted by several of the hotel’s less self-effacing guests. One of them, Mrs. Iris Pusey, is a flamboyant, apparently ageless widow who regales Edith with detailed accounts of her life as a skilled patron of quaint shops and chic boutiques. Another, Mr. Neville, is a “fastidious, careful, leisured” businessman who urges Edith to become more “self-centered”—to abandon her notions about “unselfishness being good and wickedness being bad.”
In a louder, less amusing novel, Edith would embrace Mr. Neville’s creed; she would join up with a band of smugglers and settle into simultaneous affairs with a priest, a Greek shipping tycoon, and a sumo wrestler. But Anita Brookner is no Judith Krantz. Like Rosamond Lehmann—to whom Hotel du Lac is dedicated—Ms. Brookner is a mature, perceptive, well-read novelist whose prose can be stunning and whose characters are convincingly drawn and largely appealing. Her characters experience only mild epiphanies, small victories, and quiet defeats. In Hotel du Lac, Edith Hope becomes a bit more aware of some of the odd ways in which people posture, and of her own considerable capacity for self-delusion. And that—in a novel as intelligent and elegantly phrased as this one—is plenty.
[Money: A Suicide Note, by Martin Amis; Viking; New York; $16.95]
[Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner; Pantheon Books; New York; $13.95]