Jonathan Cape, 2003
Jonathan Cape, 1984
From 1984’s Money to 2003’s Yellow Dog, in the lower levels of Martin Amis’s novels pornography represents a ubiquitous element of our collective psyche. Amis is a satirist, and he treats pornography as ‘the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way’,1 as J.G. Ballard once described it. Considered in the widest social and political context, pornography in Amis’s novels is an example of the ruthless exploitation that passes for business practice, and of the animal desires that commercial enterprise seeks to expand.
Money is a novel of urban dystopia, and in it Amis presents pornography as the visible tip of a submerged machinery of exploitation and profit. Fielding Goodney, the manipulative capitalist at the heart of Money, offers some frank advice to John Self (the novel’s narrator) about the industries of addiction:
Always endeavour, Slick, to keep a fix on the addiction industries: you can’t lose. The addicts can’t win. Nowadays the responsible businessman keeps a finger on the pulse of dependence. People just can’t hack going out any more. They’re all addicted to staying at home . . . Swallow your chemicals, swallow them fast, and get back inside. Or take the junk back with you. Stay off the streets. Stay inside. With pornography.
Solitary, one-way, rooted in the most basic and the least rational of urges, pornography is related by Amis to various activities, including video game playing – ‘if you wanted to locate space-game playing as a moral activity, one would have to align it with pornography and its solitary pleasures’, is how he puts it in Invasion of the Space Invaders (1982) – and it finds its fullest embodiment in the figure of Money’s (transparently named) John Self. ‘All my hobbies are pornographic in tendency’, Self admits:
The element of lone gratification is bluntly stressed. Fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs.
‘Lone gratification’ is the key. John Self moves between cities in which the only real link between people is that of money, of profit and loss, and where the moral diagram drawn by money is inhumanly simple: better means more, and more means better. Money is indispensable to pornography, as Self admits – ‘I don’t know how to define pornography – but money is in the picture somewhere. There has to be money involved’ – precisely because it is the ideal generator of unanchored fantasy, and perfectly matches the limitless need of consumers to sellers’ limitless desire for profit. Fielding Goodney, in turn, is the ultimate capitalist. Remorselessly resolved to target areas of need, fear and lust, he transforms escapist fantasies and denials into a more ‘real’ arena of involvement than the less-brilliant hues of the mundane world. For Amis, fantasy is society’s common language, one in which solitary activities all tend towards that purest form of exploitation, pornography.
Amis does not argue that pornography simply ‘exploits’ the men or women it depicts. The essential power of pornography is its deliberate and total reductiveness. As John Self notes after watching pornography in a cubicle, it is ‘[h]ard to tell, really, who was the biggest loser in this complicated transaction – her, him, them, me’. Money is changing hands, some are exploited, others may be gratified, but everything is drained of meaning or value beyond the ‘transaction’. Everyone has ‘lost’ something. All porn culminates in the same thing, implicitly or explicitly, and only engages in the perpetuation of desire. There is no human interaction, no possibility of resolution beyond the further expansion of fantasy. As Steve Cousins, one of Amis’s nastiest creations, discovers in The Information (1995):
He had found something that was all about sex. And nothing else . . . Pornography sometimes tried to be about other things, or to happen in other settings. But all it could ever tell you about these other things, these other settings, was that they were all about sex too. And nothing else.
The fantasy world is hermetically sealed off from any possibility of complication, and from those self-critical insights that might call upon values other than gratification.
None of this is especially new, but Amis is radical in his evocation of his characters’ vulnerability in the face of daily illusions. Above all, television shapes their minds and defines the character of contemporary illusion. Keith Talent, in London Fields (1989), is a supreme victim:
Boy, did Keith burn that tube. And that tube burnt him, nuked him, its cathodes crackling like cancer. ‘TV,’ he thought, or ‘Modern reality’ or ‘The world’. It was the world of TV that told him what the world was…. He couldn’t grade or filter it. So he thought TV was real… an exemplary reality, all beautifully and gracefully interconnected, where nothing hurts much and nobody got old… beyond a taut and twanging safety-net called money.
In this sense, pornography is just a specialised sub-set of television, the ‘exemplary’ reality at its most simplistic. For Amis, pornography is most stimulating when it is most intensely superficial. In his lover, Selina, John Self finds the ‘thrilling proof, so rich in pornography, that she does all this not for passion, not for comfort, far less for love, but rather for money’. The fake, the act put on purely for appearances, is more acceptable than the real precisely because its impersonality most directly mimics and produces more fantasy. Once, Self tells us:
…[Selina] made a noise I’d never heard her make before, a rhythmical whimpering of abandonment or entreaty, a lost sound… ‘Hey,’ I said accusingly (I was joking, I think), ‘you’re not faking it!’She looked startled, indignant. ‘Yes I am,’ she said quickly.
To admit to something authentic is to admit a dangerous vulnerability which might be exploited – especially for a woman such as Selina, whose entire persona is a weapon in the struggle for success and money. A ‘lost sound’, an ‘entreaty’, begins to ask deeper questions which the interplay of illusion is engineered to repress.
In conversation with Will Self, Amis speaks of modern people as ‘loose beings in search of a form’,2 and the bitter message of many of his novels is that this quest for form has become debased and ‘democratised’ in the worst sense. In the world of Amis’ novels, popular culture homogenizes minds, dissolving difference by answering every potential question with the same unthinking activity. When John Self goes to see the ‘actress’ Butch Beausoleil, her performance echoes the contents of his head, ‘the stuff that hot fox was giving out, all miming so fluently with the pornography still fresh in my mind’. He is stuffed full of second-hand desires, his most basic urges and responses inflamed for the profit
of others, and his ability to take control of his own life is fatally undermined by the absence of any meaningful human contact.
Amis is a satirist and an extremist, and his novels often creak under the weight of their desire to address issues. Some of his recent works have been accused of sermonising, over-simplification and sentimentality (‘At the mention of children, the chip of ice in Amis’s heart turns into a Slush Puppy’,3 according to Christopher Tayler). Nevertheless, Amis continues to reward close reading with characteristic depth and integrity of observation. The one-liners rarely fail to ring true. ‘Fame had so democratised itself that obscurity was felt as a deprivation or even a punishment’ is an elegant variation, in Yellow Dog, on his common anxiety about cultural levelling.
Pornography, too, continues to be richly, bitterly, and obsessively explored. It is an emblem of excess that, for Amis, serves the satirist’s purpose of stripping away veils and excuses, and offers a direct link to our brutal, animal aspects which society thrives upon exploiting. As John Self laments near the end of Money:
Television is working on us. Film is. We’re not sure how yet. We wait, and count the symptoms. There’s a realism problem, we all know that. TV is real! some people think. And where does that leave reality?
This is the question Amis sets out to make us answer. And, for all the mud that has been slung at his work, it remains a question he demands we ask ourselves urgently, without recourse to illusion, and with a full sense of contemporary social injustice.
Tom Chatfield is currently working on a DPhil looking at the late twentieth century and Martin Amis in particular. He also enjoys playing jazz piano and badminton, writes poetry, and is attempting to finish his first novel before it finishes him.
- J. G. Ballard, ‘Introduction’ to Crash (London, 1995), p. 6.
- Will Self in conversation with Martin Amis, from Junk Mail by Will Self (London, 1996), pp. 381-2.
- Christopher Taylor, reviewing Yellow Dog in the London Review of Books, 11th September 2003, vol. 25, no. 17, p. 12.