Success, by Martin Amis

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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.

To show how this works, the two protagonists in Success tell the same, sorry tale from opposite sides.

There’s Terry, a working class oik denied fortune, future or love. Then there’s Gregory, 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.

Each brother takes turns telling (and then re-telling) each chapter. Both are tricky, unreliable narrators, and utter bastards.

Theirs is a 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:

“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.

Drink, drugs, vomit, violence and death punctuate this book. In fact, success looks an awful lot like failure.


Martin Amis, Success (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