(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Money: A Suicide Note may be seen as a satire on metropolitan life in the late twentieth century. Its central character, John Self, incorporates all the worst aspects of an acquisitive society. He is extremely aggressive. Little homilies on the art of street fighting are delivered by him at various points in the narrative. Near the end, he is involved in two critical brawls, both of which he wins (in spite of being fat, unarmed, and allergic to any form of exercise), solely because of his no-limit ferocity. He is also sexually voracious. Much of the story consists of visits to striptease clubs, topless bars, and pornographic displays of one kind or another, while his main attachment in the novel, to Selina, is founded solidly on her sexual athleticism, with almost no hint of sentiment. Self believes furthermore that both sex and aggression are essentially matters of money. Money can buy sex, and sex can always be sold for money. Yet the key to gaining money is aggression, and once one has money, aggression can be bought. This is what happens, for example, when a small, cheap “contract” is taken out on Self, with a specific purpose—one blow in the face with a blunt instrument—and a specific price, fifty pounds. Self is also bone idle, often passing entire days in drunken stupor, and compulsively addicted to fast foods. In an earlier age, he would certainly have been taken as a living example of the Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride, and Avarice.

Self, however, is not living in an earlier age, but in the 1980’s, and with that in mind, it is possible to assemble for him some faint shreds of an excuse. For example, though he does exemplify all the Seven Sins listed above, he is clearly much more guilty of the first four corporeal sins than of the last three spiritual ones. He is vain about his clothes and his car but not especially proud. His envies are by no means devouring. Though he is greedy for money, which is one kind of avarice, he is the reverse of miserly once he has got it. In one scene, he wanders through New York (admittedly drunkenly), handing out dollars, and in many scenes, one sees him compulsively spending. There is also a very obvious suggestion that Self’s actions are not so much sins as adaptations. He is aggressive, but then everyone else around him is as well, and there is an old saying that “attack is the best form of defense.” The crazy telephoner whose threats punctuate the book insists all along that Self has injured him, but when the caller’s identity is revealed, it looks at the very least as if his revenge is out of all proportion to Self’s original offenses. Self is surrounded, in short, by what he calls “sickoes,” “devoes,” and “crazoids”; he cannot help being affected by them. In a way, he resembles a character glimpsed briefly in one New York street scene, a man lashing wildly round him at cars and passersby with a length of chain, until he is shot by a policeman. The man looks aggressive, but he has been made so. Conceivably, underneath, he might be classified as a victim.

Another way of regarding Money, therefore, is to see it as a “psychomachy,” or even a “morality play,” in which the soul of Everyman, or John Self, is battled for by troops of opposing Vices and Virtues. In this struggle, it has to be said that the forces of Vice are far more prominent. The most ludicrous are those associated with Self’s job. By trade a director of television commercials, he is now attempting to make his first full-length feature film, titled alternatively (and significantly) Good Money or Bad Money. His main backer is Fielding Goodney, by comparison with Self, a paragon of youth, beauty, self-confidence, and wealth. His actors, though, are all in different ways egomaniacs. His older female lead presents an image of Italian maternal love and sentiment; really, she hates children. His younger female lead is sex-mad. His younger male lead is a born-again Christian and, to all outward appearances, totally wholesome; he is, however, a victim of any passing fashion. Finally, his older male lead, Lorne Guyland, is vulnerable to the slightest reflection on his talents, his age, his size, his virility, or his culture, and spends most of the book determinedly trying to rewrite the script of Bad Money so that it will correspond to his childish wish-fulfillment fantasies. Self copes in the end by getting a second scriptwriter to insert large chunks of flattery in the script to pacify his actors—though he intends to cut all of it out of the film after it has been shot. Self, in short, is surrounded by people who are completely selfish. In one way, they make him worse; as with the crazies and muggers of the street scenes, he has to defend himself against them. In another way, though, he has to show responsibility and make some effort at understanding them, an effort they never reciprocate.

Even including Self’s unreliable inner promptings to...

(The entire section is 2046 words.)