Fiction as social commentary. Martin Amis's stinging satire of empty lives in the late '70s

Success, by Martin Amis. New York: Harmony Books/Crown. 224 pp. $14.95. INCREASINGLY recognized as one of the most compelling voices of the generation of British writers now in their 30s and 40s, Martin Amis has captured, preserved, and anatomized the ugly mood of late 1970s London in his third novel, ``Success,'' published in England in 1978 and appearing here for the first time.

The story unfolds in a calendar year: Unspecified, but clearly one in which that great city, which Americans had always found so civilized after the aggressiveness of New York, began to seem less like its old self, more like the New York the tourist had hoped to leave behind.

Martin Amis's stance as a writer recalls the title of H.G. Wells's pessimistic last work: ``Mind at the End of its Tether,'' published in 1945, four years before Martin Amis was born. Indeed, if his recent book ``Einstein's Monsters'' is taken as representative, we might say that Amis writes, quite literally, at the point of thinking about planet-wide death.

His other writings, however, seem fueled by a different sort of desperation: a fascinated, exasperated loathing for modern life - its pace, its vacuity, its seething vulgarity.

Amis's outlook on humanity - and his devastating way of expressing it - has prompted some to compare him with Swift. The comparison is not particularly apt, except insofar as it refers us to that tradition of spleen and misanthropy that surfaces in English literature from time to time, dazzling us with its brittle brilliance.

Other precursors are closer to home. In terms of sheer shock value, young Amis has had to contend with the example of his father, Kingsley Amis, who thumbed his nose at the ``establishment'' in ``Lucky Jim'' (1954) and continued along the course from ``angry young man'' to fractious old curmudgeon, self-declared foe of women, wildlife, the welfare state, what have you.

Like his father, young Amis writes to shock, and with a moral purpose, although his moral values seem - at this point, anyway - less antediluvian than his father's.

Like his father, he plumbs the depths of what used to be called obscenity, not only by freely using the obscene language that has long been a trademark of satire, but also by tackling obscenity in his subject matter. Like his father, he can be funny, horrifying, and outrageous, yet at the same time, he seems more serious - closer, perhaps, to the end of that tether.

``Success'' is a kind of companion work to Amis's fifth book, ``Money'' (1984 UK; 1985 US). The themes - like the titles - are closely related: the frenetic pursuit of money, power, success, sex. As Amis takes us into the psyches of his desperate, empty-headed, manipulative characters, we well may wonder why he bothers to devote such a lot of attention to people he disapproves of so much. For, unlike the hydrogen bomb, the fast-lane fashionable set can be avoided!

But fashions do shape lives, and ``life styles'' substitute themselves for more substantive values. The characters in ``Success'' embody pervasive trends. And the great strength of this novel (like ``Money'') is that it shows us what is wrong, not from the detached perspective of the critical outsider, but from the inside.

Two voices narrate the story, each talking at us with the compulsiveness of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. One belongs to Terry Service, a hapless, low-born, pathetically repulsive ``yob'' ( his word). The other belongs to his ``posh,'' upper-class foster brother, Gregory Riding, who is handsome, athletic, fashionable, disdainful, homosexual, and wildly in demand by men and women alike. Terry seems doomed to ``service'' and servility, while Gregory seems destined for ``riding'' high. Poor Terry has a meaningless job he is terrified of losing, while Gregory deigns to take on a ``fun'' job in an art gallery. Terry can scarcely get a girl to look at him, while Gregory turns away girls in droves.

And so we are given the world according to Terry and the world according to Gregory. It's really the same world, but viewed from different angles, and expressed in different styles.

The seesaw shift about two-thirds of the way through the book, when success averts her shining face from Gregory to smile upon Terry, is essentially a shift in the way the characters see themselves. Between Gregory's preening self-love and Terry's bitter self-loathing there seems a world of difference.

But, as Amis skillfully illustrates, these two states of mind are a mere hair's breadth apart. Different though they are, Terry and Gregory are adrift in a world where no quality seems to exist in and of itself. Value is entirely arbitrary in the mind of the beholder. The situation recalls Shakespeare's ``Troilus and Cressida'': ``What is aught, but as 'tis valued?'' and the reply, `` ... value dwells not in particular will.'' Gregory and Terry are caught up in the pursuit of things that have no intrinsic value and suffer accordingly. Devastating as Amis's satire is, its sting also exposes the sheer pathos - and the dreadful vertigo - of leading an empty life.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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