Saturday 7 October 2023

Success - Martin Amis (1978)


Rating: Excellent

As every literature lover should know, Martin Amis passed away in May of this year. It came as very bad news indeed, as Amis certainly was one of the best and most interesting writers in the English language of the last fifty years or so. Success was his third novel and is stylistically in the same vein as his first two novels, The Rachel Papers (1973) and Dead Babies (1975). Amis once described Dead Babies as a 'young persons' novel and initially Success reads as though it could fit that description as well, however it ultimately manifests as representing something more; it does not seem to be trying as hard to impress and its grotesqueries are dialled down marginally. There are some typical Amis tropes here however, men named Keith, class snobbery, grotesque sex and lots of drinking; the tone is satirical, witty and biting, featuring dozens of brilliant sentences that pop off the page, but there's also more emotional connection and character depth. Brothers Terence Service and Gregory Riding share a flat in London. They have an interesting history, as Terence was adopted by Gregory's eccentric father when he read about Terence's tragic background. Terence's adopted family are wealthy, as in old-school wealth and Gregory certainly acts the part, with the interaction between the two allowing for some satirical skewering of class conscious England. 

Success has a clever structure, covering a whole year from January to December. Each month is divided into a chapter and within each chapter there are two sections, one each from the perspective of Terence and Gregory. Gregory boasts about his successful life, his money, his cushy job, his good looks, his sex life, you name it, he's the man. Gregory comes across as insecure, a mess, poorly dressed, a loser with the ladies and only just holding on after his traumatic and weird upbringing. Amis completely nails each character, although neither of them come across as the finest of humanity, you can't help but get drawn in to their world view and the little hints they both give about what is really going on. All, of course, is not what it seems, and as the novel progresses the reality of the situation becomes clearer and the notion of success begins to shift. During the course of the novel we are also introduced to the brothers' sister, Ursula, and through their interactions with her we begin to get a real idea of just how on the nose everything is. Success is such an enjoyable novel and although the perception is that Amis's work would go on to mature in terms of thematic heft and writing quality, there's nothing wrong with his early work based on the evidence of his first three novels. Now, onto Other People (1981), a book The Guardian's John Self refers to as Amis's 'first good one,' but surely that was The Rachel Papers, a book I love and want to read again, such was its irresistible qualities.

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