John Self was born in a pub called, “The Shakespeare,” he stays in room 101 every time he goes to New York, he is subtly being manipulated by the writer Martin Amis, and he is greatly indebted to the despicable yet cathartic characters of the western cannon, yet he does not relate the animals of Animal Farm to humans, he sees himself as a member of the menacing thought-police rather than one of their victims, he thinks Desdemona is unfaithful to Otello because of the porno-redux he saw of the opera 50 pages before he saw the real thing, and he cannot see that Fielding is the confused, motivation-less Iago.
Instead, he believes that he is the champion of the twentieth century, not a victim of it: “As a rule,” he says, “I hate people who are beneficiaries of a university education. I hate people with degrees, O-levels, eleven-pluses, Iowa Tests, shorthand diplomas…And you hate me, don’t you. Yes you do. Because I’m the new kind, the kind who has money but can never use it for anything but ugliness. To which I say: You never let us in, not really. You might have thought you let us in, but you never did. You just gave us some money.” Of course, we believe it; we have no reason to believe otherwise until the facts of the conspiracy fly forth in no more than 10 pages with fewer than 50 pages left in the novel.
This may be the one flaw in the novel: that in dealing with the literary underpinning of Othello, Amis did not stick closer to Shakespear’s blueprint. In Shakespeare, we know Iago is Iago all along, and thus we grapple to find his motivations all along, and, horrifyingly, find nothing. It is nearly impossible to know that Fielding is toying with Self on a first read, because Self as a narrator consciously suppresses from us the one episode through which we could have seen his maliciousness: the night in the bathroom when Self almost missed his plane. However, keeping us from seeing the literary parallel keeps us more truly peering through the eyes of the narrator, who misses it all the way to the end of the novel. And the fact that Amis inserts himself into the novel as a character to tease this parallel out for us may reflect that this was his intended effect: giving us two seperate ways of thinking about the novel, in two different stages of reading it.
First, with the major literary parallel suppressed, we take the story – a story of the universally deplorable world of filth – from the eyes of a member of that world, who himself, even while relishing in it, finds it deplorable. In this stage of reading the novel, we get some of the most biting satire yet produced about the sub-culture of fast-life. His retellings of pornography that he’s watched and sex that he’s had are painfully disturbing to read, agonizingly long, yet they are also full of mixed emotion for Self. After watching a particularly raunchy pornography, he says, “Hard to tell, really, who was the biggest loser in this complicated transaction – her, him, them, me.” Because of this indulgence-inspired-shame, we sympathize with him. Even if everyone does not act them out as much as John Self, everyone has sick, indulgent impulses that they know compromise their own humanity. And this is the state of the world in Money: everyone acting out their most inhuman impulses. Page after page of this biting satire, with occasional irony, “I don’t know about you, but it seems a hell of a way to live, if they’re meant to be so smart…what a way to live, I mean, you have seen pigs, haven’t you?” a steady stream of plotted side stories, resolving themselves in every chapter, and the bi-chapter parallel of the fast-culture of New York and London draw the reader along before the second stage opens up for them.
This is the stage Amis draws out as both the writer and the character. Throughout the satire and minor plot-lines, it has been forming all along. When literature comes up with Fielding, we learn that his favorite book is “The Sound and the Fury,” a title taken from Shakespeare most nihilistic speech. Fielding and Salina, the Trans-Atlantic doubles that play Iago, screw him over, all the while thinking he deserves it, and Martin and Martina the Trans-Atlantic doubles playing Desdemona can’t stop his tragic descent. But why? What are Fielding, Salina, and Self’s motivations? The answer, of course, is on every page of the book: money. They want money, but is that a clear enough motivation. Martin Amis steps in with his arranged authorial voice here and says, “I sometimes think that as a controlling force in human affairs, motivation is pretty well shagged out by now. It hasn’t got what it takes to motivate people anymore. Go for a walk in the streets, how much motivation do you see?” This, indeed, sounds like the world of Iago. In Othello, Iago troubles the reader because he is constantly striving for something, but we can’t figure out what that is; it is some vague idea of what he will have in the end, but what? The same is true of the money-motivation in this book. This is the most brilliant observation of Amis’s parallel: that money, as a motivation, is very similar to that deplorable motivation of Iago’s: it’s vague, it’s something we are after, but it means nothing specific.
With this realization at the end of the novel, a second reading can begin, one that doesn’t require reading so much, as reflecting. We see these characters in a new light, a truer light: motivation-less actors all vying for some vague sense of power. In this case, it is the power of John Self’s life. Franklin and Salina, even Martin Amis and Martina, want to control him and manipulate him as Iago did Othello. Looking back at the book, this has been artfully presented, in that they’re all working on writing and producing the story of John Self’s life. Throughout Amis’s novel, many characters try to take control and write the story how they want it to play out, just like in Shakespeare’s play, Iago took the actions to try and write the play for himself. And, as in the play, the deceivers do have that power over the novel for quite a while: Franklin controls Self throughout, and Salina takes his happiness from him as she pleases. It is not until there is an authorial interjection, until Amis steps in and shows that he is writing the script, and re-writes Self’s life-story, that Franklin’s plan starts to fail. It’s an experiment in an author’s control of his work, and it is executed well. While drawing out new meaning of the play Othello, it draws out new meaning of the play itself. It points out that an artists hand is shaping these forces to show something. This becomes remarkably clear when Amis tells Self what Franklin’s last words actually were: “Curse you Iago, you inhuman dog.” Of course, Self does not recognize this, and Fielding, clearly seeing things as backward as Self, is ignorant of it as well, but Martin is aware of these truths in fast-culture, and he makes us aware of them, too.
While on the surface, this tactic is not the most subtle way to work a post-modern element into his novel, it goes farther than many other post-modernists in showing the relationship of the creator and his creation, and, through its conclusions, it gets closest to Amis’s self-stated purpose of art. When asked by John Haffended if he thinks literature has a function, he answered, “I would say that the point of good art is remotely and unclearly an educative process, a humanizing and enriching process. If you read a good novel, things must look a little richer and more complicated, and one feels that this should eat away at all ills. The only hope is education, and one is vaguely – though not centrally – involved in the process of education.” Amis’s satire is clearly a tool for eating away at the social ills it satirizes, and his intricate post-modern weaving of himself into the novel brings up new and interesting ideas about the relationship of art and life, giving a careful reader a richer and more complicated way of looking at both.