I don't remember now why I selected this book. I think I'd just read a glowing plaudit from someone or other. Some reviewers embraced it as a bold new realism when it came out in 1984. I agree that it exemplifies what the New York Times called "the new unpleasantness", but in my opinion, it doesn't do nearly as well as, for example, Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho when it comes to parody of the materialism and greed of the early '80s.
John Self is all about self-gratification, whether it comes in the form of alcohol, money, or pornography. Flitting between London and New York, he is ostensibly in the process of producing a film, so he's also schmoozing with actors, actresses and their neuroses. Self has left his blue-collar British town, but rolling in money has done nothing to elevate his tastes.
Eleven o'clock. What can a grown male do alone at night in Manhattan, except go in search of trouble or pornography? Me, I spent an improving four hours on Forty-Second Street, dividing my time between a space-game arcade and the basement gogo bar next door. In the arcade the proletarian ghosts of the New York night, these darkness-worshippers, their terrified faces reflected in the screens, stand hunched over their controls. They look like human forms of mutant moles and bats, hooked on the radar, rumble and wow of these stocky new robots who play with you if you give them money. They'll talk too, for a price. Launch Mission, Circuit Completed, Firestorm, Flashpoint, Timewarp, Crackup, Blackout! The kids, tramps and loners in here, they are the mineshaft spirits of the new age. Their grandparents must have worked underground. I know mine did. In the gogo bar men and women are eternally ranged against each other, kept apart by a wall of drink, a moat of poison, along which mad matrons and bad bouncers stroll.Money is dirty. Self knows this. You wallow in it with the same slavering lust as you feel for sex.
I roved out into the foaming malls. My mission? To buy champagne. Selina, she likes a lot of outlay. You cannot do pornography by halves. Pornography and money enjoy a dose concordat, and you have to pay your union dues...Self makes up for the dearth of wealth during his childhood by grasping at it as an adult. The catch is, he doesn't have very good ideas on how to enjoy it once he's got it. You can only spend so much on food and booze, and when he goes to a slightly higher-class strip club, he resents being overcharged. Self eats and drinks so prodigiously that readers are likely to find themselves feeling queasy and drunk as they flip the pages, following him from one over-indulgent bout of immediate gratification to the next.
You know, the thing I want more than anything else — you could call it my dream in life — is to make lots of money. I would cheerfully go into the alchemy business, if it existed and made lots of money ... We travelled on through air and time. Still four hours to kill. Drinking and smoking, alas, do not claim one's undivided attention. That's the only fault I have to find with these activities.Self does have a relationship (after a fashion) with a woman in London, Selina. He suspects she wants him solely for his money. One struggles to find any other use she might have for him.
...the only way I can make Selina actually want to go to bed with me is by not wanting to go to bed with her. It never fails. It really puts her in the mood. The trouble is, when I don't want to go to bed with her (and it does happen), I don't want to go to bed with her. When does it happen? When don't I want to go to bed with her? When she wants to go to bed with me. I like going to bed with her when going to bed with me is the last thing she wants. She nearly always does go to bed with me, if I shout at her a Jot or threaten her or give her enough money. It works well. It is an excellent system. Selina and I get on like a house on fire.It is a clever bit of money vs. class contrast that Charles and Diana's wedding is occurring on the same summer that Self is pondering a future, if there is one, with Selina.
I admit, Amis has a deft way with words, and although I've never been to Los Angeles, I suspect this paragraph is picture-perfect.
You walk left, you walk right, you are a bank rat on a busy river. This restaurant serves no drink, this one serves no meat, this one serves no heterosexuals. You can get your chimp shampooed, you can get your dick tattooed, twenty-four hour, but can you get lunch? And should you see a sign on the far side of the street flashing BEEF-BOOZE—NO STRINGS, then you can forget it. The only way to get across the road is to be born there. All the ped-xing signs say DON'T WALK, all of them, all the time. That is the message, the content of Los Angeles: don't walk.I'm not a reader who feels the need to like a protagonist, but I don't have much tolerance for one who bores me. Heaven knows, American Psycho's Patrick Bateman was loathesome, but Ellis managed to use humour as a relief valve. Self is too thick to be funny. I just wanted to scuttle away from him and have a bath.