Success by Martin Amis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"His nasty hair thins by the hour; his polychromatic teeth (all of which bear the variegations of cheap dental work, surfacing like invisible ink as the fillings live and the bones die) now taper darkly off into the metallic hecatomb of his jaws - the bent, self-pitying mouth, the appallingly malarial eyes."
Martin Amis' third novel, Success (1978), my seventh book by the author, is a compulsive and hilarious read. It is hard not fall in love with the sharp, nimble, and funny prose of this phenomenally gifted writer. Yet this book only confirms my reservations as to the lack of depth in his fiction works. Although Success is more substantial than the infantile
, it shares with Babies the obsessive focus on the sexual sphere. And similarly to
it is basically a one-gimmick novel. While in Arrow the gimmick is time running backwards, the contrivance here is juxtaposing the protagonists' life trajectories that move symmetrically in opposite directions.
Terry Service is Gregory Riding's "foster-brother". He was adopted by the Riding family having survived extremely traumatic experiences in his childhood and the loss his parents. Terry and Greg, both in their twenties, live together in a London flat and we follow one year of their life: each month's events are first told by Terry and then by Greg. When we meet them in January Terry is desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get laid; Greg's sexual life is varied, rich and satisfying: of course being bisexual helps a lot in finding dates, as Woody Allen once famously pointed out. Terry is ashamed of his job - he works as sort of a telemarketer - and in fact worries about possibly getting fired. Greg works in a posh art gallery and is highly appreciated by his employers. While Terry is short, squat, and balding, Greg is an extremely attractive and handsome young man. Class differences are hinted at: Terry's background is working class while the Riding family has always been well-to-do. In real life success would breed success and failure would foster further failures. but Mr. Amis decided to examine the opposite situation: the brother's trajectories reverse their momentum and at the end of the story the brothers' relative positions are completely inverted.
The reverse trajectory ploy is too contrived for the novel to have a serious pretense to realism. Events happen not because of their natural dynamic but because they suit the author's pre-conceived outline. While Terry's ascendancy from debilitating insecurity to success is plausible and shown convincingly - after all some people do grow out in their twenties of the adolescent obsession with sex and turn to focus on things that are important - Greg's rapid descent is harder to buy. No wonder: it must be difficult to plausibly explain the transformation of a king of massive bisexual orgies into a pant-shitting bundle of fear.
The novel invites the readers to work out their own interpretations. Some readers will focus on the "posh vs yob" class stereotype, but it hardly can account for degree and rapidity of trajectory reversal. One may prefer to focus on the sibling rivalry and see the first upturn in Terry's trajectory as the main reason for the beginning of Greg's downhill slide. Other readers may consider the influence of Terry's first contact with the unions as critical. Some may see the events happening to Ursula, Greg's natural sister, as the precipitating factor. Well, I am equally justified in my half-serious suggestion that the crucial turning moment comes in May, when Terry stops wanking. One can only admire the book's openness to a variety of readings; let's hope this was the author's intention.
On the negative side, the thread about the traumatic events in Terry's pre-adoption childhood feels just too convenient for the story - the author needs an additional axis of symmetry to the narrative structure. But Mr. Amis can write so fantastically well! Humor sparkles on almost every page. The voices of two narrators are remarkably different. This is some of the best writing about the mechanics of sex, and one can even find a depiction of a bisexual orgy that is kept in perfectly good taste. Even using the word "fuck" 48 times in the space of four short paragraphs on one page makes sense and should not offend anybody. Same with a few paragraphs about incest. Yes, incest.
Three and a half stars.
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