When Martin Amis published his fifth novel, Money, in 1984, ambition was written all over it. (Amis’s previous novels were clever but generally undistinguished.) Money’s large cast of characters and crowded plot broadcast the author’s determination to outdistance England’s other youngish front-running novelists, perhaps the most visible of whom are A. N. Wilson and Julian Barnes. According to American critics, who prize ambition above all other qualities, Amis accomplished his goal. Money was hailed as a novel full of “comic verve” (James Atlas); as “brilliant and frightening” (Anthony Burgess); as “engaging and hilarious” (Jay Mclnerney). Amis was called an artist of Rabelaisian gifts for his feverish portrait of a modern society deformed by greed.

The hero of the novel, a grotesquely obese, alcoholic Englishman named John...


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