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Success, by Martin Amis

Success – according to Martin Amis’s 1978 novel – is a finite resource, like gold, or the fabled Nando’s Black card. For one person to do well in life, someone else must go without.

To demonstrate this, there are two protagonists in Success, each spewing up parts of the same, sorry tale from opposing viewpoints. There’s Terry, a working class oik denied fortune, future or love. Then there’s Gregory, a well-to-do libertine who also happens to be Terry’s foster brother.

Initially, Gregory is the success. He has the money, the wicked phrasing, and the endless sexual adventures. Terry, meanwhile, can’t get laid nor lucky. Both are eminently dislikeable – and there’s plenty to find unpleasant about Success. The smorgasbord of depravity includes incest, underage sex, suicide and swinging (all things which are fair game in ‘art’, but certainly draw opprobrium in public, or even as private fetishes).

Gregory and Terry are separated by a millimeter of fate. Each chapter (one for every month in a single year) is told twice, by each of them in turn. Each time the conch is passed, certainty slips a little – both are tricky, unreliable narrators, and utter bastards. It’s a smart tale of reversal of fortune (more Trading Places than Freaky Friday), but it’s a book of bitter truth rather than redemption. And it’s certainly short of laughs.

Instead, this is a novel consumed by class. It’s also concerned with London and city life; the text is dotted with social postcards, throwaway trinkets which capture the time and place and how people are.

“We went to a noisy, conservatorial hamburger place I know some 200 yards further up the Fulham Road, a place where tall, handsome trend-setters go on as if they were your friends while they give you food and take your money.”

Also of interest are those parts of the text where the past is mis-remembered and then corrected by the other brother’s narration. It’s a cinematic device, and one which pulls no punches in pulling down self-delusion. And there’s a lot of that to go round, as both characters are self-absorbed neurotics. Drink, drugs, vomit, violence and death punctuate this book. In fact, success looks an awful lot like failure.

Success, Martin Amis (1978). Penguin Books, 1985

Similar to: Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk), Filth (Irvine Welsh)


Words: my own except where quoted.

Photo by Nick Fewings via Unsplash.