In 1978, and I’ve already mentioned it, Martin Amis was charismatic but in the grand scheme of things still anonymous – even despite the huge critical success his first two novels had generated. However serious the subject matter, Amis’ third novel is still pretty much a work of his colourful, brilliantly immature early period. Next would be Other People – a more thoughtful, complete, fully fledged novel, and the one that paved the way for Amis’ golden years as one of the leading (and, naturally, controversial) British postmodernists.
As was the case with The Rachel Papers and Dead Babies, the thing to admire about Amis’ early novels is the sheer youthful confidence and self-belief running through them. Despite the edgy Doppelganger-style narration, Success is among Amis’ most straightforward, one could even say traditional stories – whose twist in the tail is the one you’ve been expecting all along. The short novel is divided into 24 chapters – 12 months multiplied by two rather unreliable narrators, the arrogant and (possibly) handsome Gregory Riding and his plain and clumsy foster brother Terence Service. Martin Amis has noted that it reveals a lot about an author – the amount of effort he puts into inventing the names of his characters. And it is indeed quite revealing, because frankly - I don’t imagine he took much trouble this time, the whole thing (plot, names, etc.) being so blunt and so raw. It’s of course amusing to keep noticing all those discrepancies between Terence’s and Gregory’s accounts of the very same events, and Amis’ brutal black humour, his situational and linguistic witticisms are ever-present, but Success still comes off as rather too hookless and predictable. This aforementioned crudeness, this lack of subtlety could be the reason why the novel hasn’t dated so well. You get it all way too early – not something one would expect from a Martin Amis novel.
Success is a cruel and undoubtedly quite effective satire on, well, success. Its fickle nature and merciless ways. But I can’t get rid of a feeling that the book is a lot more effective in revealing that in 1978 Amis’ writing was still somewhat sloppy and underdeveloped. Yes, everything's already in place: the style, the witty sex jokes, the dramatic finale. But Success is oddly tame - an apprentice job, however capable and smart. One could of course make a point that he never lost it, this youthful sloppiness, – neither in his style nor in his plots. But by this point he hadn’t quite figured out how to use it for his benefit – as well as ours.