Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Martin Amis, _Success_

ABOUT MID-CAREER, say the era of Brideshead Revisited and the WW II trilogy, Evelyn Waugh seemed to his contemporaries to have matured a bit, learned some manners, softened his style and acquired some gravitas. He became a best-seller, got some honors, became  a respectable ornament of English letters. As time went on, though, it was the early satiric novels--Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust--that really seemed to represent his essential achievement, his distinctive contribution.

I wonder whether something similar will happen with Martin Amis. About mid-career--I'm going to say London Fields--he became someone to take seriously, someone Booker-able. But perhaps the wilder, less disciplined, more carbonated novels of his enfant terrible years will in time be the ones that matter.

This one from 1978 is a case in point. It's a yob-vs.-snob tale, narrated alternately by the yob, Terry Service (red-headed, pug-faced, humble, charmless office grunt) and the snob, Gregory Riding (well-born, well-educated, arrogant, handsome scenester). The twist: they are brothers, Gregory's impulsively good-doing father having adopted Terry after a fire destroyed the rest of his family, and flatmates, circumstances that sharpen Terry's envy and Gregory's condescension. A further twist: in a kind of variation on the old logic-problem riddle, Terry always tells the truth, and Gregory always lies. And one more: power inexplicably shifts, A Star Is Born fashion, over the course of the year in which which the narration occurs, Terry ascendant and terrible, Gregory defeated and cringing.

Both characters are interesting, Terry appealingly candid about his own initial haplessness and then darkly compelling as the turning worm, Gregory a kind of Van Veen living in an Antiterra of his own until brutally brought to earth.

What really makes the book unforgettable, though, is the sheer exuberance of the style, a proliferation of verbal effects that (as in early Wyndham Lewis) does not know how to shut itself off, every sentence  a string of firecrackers.

Mature? No. Delightful?  Yes, and distinctively so.

Happy Bloomsday, everyone.

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