Success, by Martin Amis

Films to Read Before You Die | Out October 2021

Success – according to Martin Amis’s 1978 novel – is a finite resource. For one person to do well in life, someone else must go without.

What is Success about?

Terry is a working class oik denied fortune, future or love. Gregory is a well-to-do libertine. They couldn’t be more different – yet they’re foster brothers separated by a millimeter of fate.

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 tough to like – and there’s plenty to find unpleasant about Success, from incest and underage sex to suicide.

there’s plenty to find unpleasant about Success, from incest and underage sex to suicide

Each brother takes turns telling (and then re-telling) the story. Both are tricky, unreliable narrators, as well as utter bastards.

Success is about 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:

“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. 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.

The tale they tell is peppered with drink, drugs, vomit, violence and death. Success looks an awful lot like failure.


Success, by Martin Amis (1978)

Other books like Success
  • Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk (unreliable narrators)
  • Filth, by Irvine Welsh (the seamy side of life)
  • Goodbye to Berlin (city life, louche lifestyles)

Picture credit: Nick Fewings