Forgotten London Classics: Julie Burchill, Ambition (1989)
Burchill’s loopy first novel takes us from Bangkok to Sun City to New York whilst its heart remains squarely in London. Susan Street is the fast-talking, hard-bargaining, label-wearing, luscious heroine of a book of which the Literary Review said ‘Civilisation will not lightly forgive her’. Whether Burchill cared what the stuffy, masculine Review thought is unlikely, but this is a snappy, populist, inyerface, gloriously foul-mouthed, hammered and unapologetic whirlwind of a book which probably unknowingly wrote the template for Girls Aloud. Street works for the newspaper Sunday Best and is hoping to become the first woman editor of the paper. The new owner of the paper has other plans for her, however, which mainly include sexually humiliating her to the point that she breaks down and stops being all uppity. ‘I’m going to have fun breaking you, Susan’, says the media mogul Tobias Pope, and his subsequent Herculean seven tasks include various orgies that teeter on the edge of gang rape, having ‘SOLD’ tattooed on her forehead, becoming a Thai stripper and being hung from the ceiling of a Lesbian club in New York. From the bravura opening sequence when Street wonders what to do having shagged her boss to death through the various tasks she is presented with Burchill suggests that her protagonist is in control of the situation and effectively leading Pope on, allowing him to think he has the power whilst actually rather enjoying the whole thing herself. This does not really persuade the reader, but the energy of the novel drags them ever forward. Similarly the presentation of Susan as some kind of hard-edged feminist does not really square with the character from the provinces so desperate to succeed she will accede to any request made by the strangely attractive Pope. She is his possession, both financially and bodily, and it seems counterintuitive of her to see their competition as something she has some power over. In the end the novel just about fails to escape its generic origins: despite the sexual rapaciousness and explicitness, Susan finds herself in love with (you guessed it) Pope’s son who marries her and gives her the job she finally wanted. It is a globetrotting romance by any other name, a trashy airport novel that kind of undermines its origins but probably doesn’t care. Burchill’s scattergun approach is exhilarating and oftentimes extremely funny. The novel kind of stands the test of time, although the sex seems tamer a couple of decades later and the obsessive desire for success rings a little uncertainly. Certainly the London presented here – all image obsessed (and the description of the clothes in the novel are themselves worth cherishing as historical documents) and shiny new bars – is seething with familiar life. Street taxis around, shops, argues and has sex; but she mainly drinks, and the novel suggests that the lifeblood of the city is in its new bars and clubs. Similarly it presents to us a newly burgeoning demographic of rich, educated, single, independent women (of varying sexualities) beginning to tear up the city and make it their own.