I’m reading Money by Martin Amis and am staggered at how good it is - gross and disgustingly good. Really enjoying it, to the point that of all the cultural pleasures awaiting me when I get home from work - TV, the launch of Celebrity Big Brother, podcasts, films on demand - it’s this book I’m most looking forward to. (Readers: let’s be honest (seriously now), when it’s late and you’re tired, how often is that the case?)
I’m about nine tenths of the way through, and it struck me the momentum that’s pushing me on isn’t a desire to find out what’ll happen. The ‘plot’ as such is something I’d struggle to describe. What’s making me want to read on is the unravelling of a character - though it feels more like the building pressure of a tumescent growth, like the boil on John Self’s bum that needs lancing or will burst.
I suppose what I’m after is comeuppance of a sort (though I like the character enormously, despite his outrageous views and behaviour). Maybe not a comeuppance, but some kind of final act. No-one, I think as a reader, can continue to behave like this and not come unstuck. Except he’s coming unstuck on every page, slowly and deliberately if you believe the preface.
It got me thinking about two things: 1) all this guff about Hero’s Journey, where does that fit in to John Self? He’s falling apart at the seams from the start, and all that changes, it seems to me, is the intensity - sometimes his behaviour abates for a few pages, but then sure enough it gets worse (often becoming laugh-out-loud funny). Something is dawning on him, and on the reader too, but it comes incrementally, in such small episodes, not in a few big crescendoes (as the story experts would have you believe), and this new found knowledge doesn’t change his thinking or his decisions. Just when you think he’s becoming saner, he lashes out with violence. Or just when he seems more contented, he does something stupid that risks it all.
But something *is* building: something that is in opposition to his original views, and something that will have to be confronted. Something is making me read on. What I’m thinking is, HOW do you write that? How did Amis do this? Was it something that splurged out because he ‘became’ John Self in his head? Or did he structure this carefully too?
And 2). The second thing it got me thinking about was how privileged the reader is. Not just that we have a ringside view (on the first page of Money, Amis invites us to witness a suicide), but that we look down on heroes from the start.
Heroes do what we ourselves would never do.
That’s the fun of it. They enact the most outrageous things we can think of. Sometimes we even anticipate it, and then the tantalising feeling we experience is thrilling. So the fun of a reader is twofold: we can be the know-it-all “I’d never have done it like that” character, and we can admire and yearn for the strength of character that would lead us to act on impulse.
As a writer then we should be thinking not about peaks and troughs, or key scenes, or plot points that can be plotted on a graph and serve as ‘story goals’. We should be writing incident by incident, feeling our way in the dark, and making sure the hero always does what we in a million years wouldn’t do.
Something more like the ‘and then’ 'but then’ ‘and then' school of writing than the five act structure or eight-point arc or whatever.
Something tells me that’s what Amis does - though I’d love to know more about how he approaches writing a book like Money.
Okay, so I looked it up. In this Paris Review interview he says:
The reader is going to wonder how things turn out. In this respect, Money was a much more difficult book to write than London Fields because it is essentially a plotless novel. It is what I would call a voice novel. If the voice doesn’t work you’re screwed.
So that answers 1. I’m really glad he said it was hard. Fuck these fuckers who say it just poured out of them. And then:
With Money, for example, I had an idea of a big fat guy in New York, trying to make a film. That was all. Sometimes a novel can come pretty consecutively and it’s rather like a journey in that you get going and the plot, such as it is, unfolds and you follow your nose. You have to decide between identical-seeming dirt roads, both of which look completely hopeless, but you nevertheless have to choose which one to follow.
…which goes some way to answer 2. Amis doesn’t plot in advance, it seems (though, he admits, his father did).
His notion of writing ‘flat-out’, and ignoring secondary concerns like plot and characterisation is inspiring too. Well, inspiring and paralysing too, if you’re trying to write something.
Progress so far: aargh