One of the appeals of the English novel to Americans is its preoccupation with class distinctions. To an American, class distinctions are quite alien—no matter how real they may be subterraneously. Dickens depicted class with cartoonish humanity. C.S. Lewis depicted class with pious vulgarity. As the political and economic spectrum changed in England, the class system, as it happened everywhere, grew a bit complicated.
Martin Amis’s fiction is almost always a sort of love song to the complicated transition from old to new, good to bad and local to foreign. Success is the least thematically subtle of his catalogue. It alternates between two separate first-person narratives: two step brothers who happen to live together in a London flat and who happen to hate each other. The younger brother, Terry, was adopted at the age of nine after his father killed his baby sister.
Despite the adoption, he managed to grow up lower class (the term ‘yob’ is often used of him as a pejorative). His adulthood is a sex-less self-pitying degeneration featuring rotting teeth, thinning hair, daily hangovers and impotence. He considers himself such an eyesore and a ‘quivering condom of ineptitude and neurosis’ that any mere acknowledgement of his existence is welcomed:
I say ‘thank you’ five times a morning in places like these. Thank you for letting me in, thank you for acknowledging my presence, thank you for taking my order, thank you for taking my money, thank you for giving me change. The other day, in London’s Paddington station, I said the words ‘thank you’ to a hot-drinks machine …
Diametrically opposite is his older stepbrother, Gregory, who grew up upper class. He drives a nice car and works a job at an art gallery where he gets to do whatever he wants. He’s quite successful with the opposite as well as same sex.
Here we have two unreliable narrators convincing us that the other is less reliable. Yet one thing is clear: they both have incestuous desires for their younger sister, Ursula. Terry abates this desire by channeling his attentions to a naïve temp worker at his sales job. Gregory acts on his desire for his sister quite unguiltily, or so he tells us.
Gregory also acts on his desires for Terry’s new girl, Jan, in the brief window of time he’s given when Terry leaves their date early to attend to his sister in the hospital after a suicide attempt.
In other words, in every area that Terry isn’t successful, Gregory is. Wherever Terry might be successful, Gregory gets there first. But something peculiar starts to happen to Gregory after a strange, transformative experience in an ominous subway station. He starts to lose his nerve, his success and narrative confidence just as Terry, in turn, starts to gain all three.
If Amis was a moralist in the classic sense, there would perhaps be a set of reasons for this transfiguration. Perhaps a Dickensian criminal from the beginning would reoccur in the end as a voice of wisdom. However, Amis here makes use of the one moral he has always stuck to—avoiding cliché.
How does one avoid cliché? We can’t all smash it apart and write like aliens the way that Burroughs did, nor can we all unfold our narratives and invest in an index-amount of information in high-style like Joyce. Some have to skateboard ever close but never into the looming office building of cliché if only to play around it.
With the stink and spirit of New Criticism still clinging to the air like potato salad at a wedding reception, it can be intimidating for artists to escape the analytic eye of the ever-shrewd book-chatter, always eager to trace the artistic teleology of an idea. Some writers are quite warranted in their pithiness when dealing with their public. Harlan Ellison, when asked where he gets his ideas, often responded, ‘Schenectady.’
As often as Amis gets his ideas from London, Dickensian cartoonishness and Nobokovian gamesmanship, Amis seems to pull from the very discourse in which thought-trends and cliché characters are born. This seems necessary. One can’t go to war with cliché unless one faces it head on. So here, Amis makes psychology his playground. Here we have incest, sibling rivalry, role reversals, child-abuse/murder, impotence and its eventuation through the self-loathing failure of one adulthood and the dismissive success of the other. This is all totally structural—consciously—which I imagine didn’t make it fun for the critics looking for psycho-peek-a-boo symbols throughout the text. Amis already did their work for them.
They may not have a great time with it, but we as readers do. Realizing that one is either dismissed as bombastic or rejected as heretical if one whimsically compares a modern writer to Homer and Ovid, I’ll say this: In the same manner that the Greek poets and dramatists played around with their own myths, Amis plays around with the myths of our time. In a time when it might be rightly said that every culture gets the literature it deserves, Amis does us one better.