This is a quick review. Published in 1974, this is Amis’ first novel and the third of his I’ve finished. The other two, Time’s Arrow and Information, were stupendous achievements where Amis proved himself among the best stylists of his age, at least judging by the narrow diet of books I am on. I was fascinated that two so different yet excellent novels could have been authored by the same cranky Brit. Then, some five years ago, I stopped reading Amis, for fear of being disappointed or for lack of motivation, I really can’t say. Now, the Rachel Papers. In a way, picking a good writer’s first novel is an excellent means of warding off disappointments since the very fact of it being the first means you have to make allowances, for youth, inexperience. So, no, I was not disappointed. On the other hand, the Rachel Papers never achieve the power of the other Amis novels I read. This novel is not consistently interesting, funny or well written. It is, at times, all three of these, but not for longer than two thirds of this rather short book.
The novel certainly is worth reading, if only for the first half which is riotously funny. I spent much time walking around my workplace and reading sentences and paragraphs aloud to virtual strangers. The humor is not for everybody, the main character, Charles Highway is a posh, snotty, selectively well read (I’ll return to this) fuck, who is the younger version of a certain type well described as ‘geezer’, who is part of every single norm in society (white male heterosexual etc.) and who regards any deviations as slightly suspicious. Hence his brand of humor.
I spent the night in a state of mild, run-of-the-mill delirium, sweating quietly as my mind wobbled and raced and swerved: and with morning, came the unshakeable, indeed serene, conviction that I was a homosexual. It all added up: I had had, it was true, one queer experience (a smegmatic handful of queer experience in my primary-school cricket pavillon); I was a soprano, a first soprano, often taking descants, in the choir; I was as yet a virgin, and I had to lie my unpimpled head off to my friends about how I wanked as often, and with as much piston-wristed savagery, as they said they did. Clearly, the minute I was off my arse, I’d be getting it on the bus to Oxford and hawking it there to the friendly undergraduates at Magdalen. In puzzled preparation I read the collected works of Oscar Wilde, Gerard Manley Hopkins, A.E. Housman, and (for what little it was worth) E.M. Forster.
Did you laugh? Grin? Raise a disapproving eyebrow? These are some of the reactions this novel tries to elicit from its readers, smugly, I may add. The main reason why it drags at times and why many readers will leave it less than satisfied is its smugness yet this is also part of the fun of reading it.
To the plot. Charles Highway, a young man from a thoroughly bourgeois household, relates his life and his efforts to get into Rachel’s pants. Rachel is 20, which qualifies her for that desirable category: an Older Woman, since Charles is only 19, a few hours away from becoming 20. The book is largely composed of reminiscences and reflections. It’s a pretty straightforward coming of age tale and as many of them are, it is somewhat dated. The main difference to the generic treatment is Charles’ character. Charles is smug. Yes, many of the main characters are smug. Not like Charles, though. He is a frail boy, often sick, who has few friends, but is decently well looking, frightfully smart. His frailty leads to neurotic obsessive behavior. Before he meets people, even if it’s just the few minutes it takes to walk someone home from the train station, he plans every word. Before people come into his room, he carefully arranges every detail. The amount of dirt, the records and books on display and other things are carefully calibrated to achieve an effect. He worries and circumspectly tends to his pimples.
Many men (i.e. former boys) will nod and say: yeah well what’s so particularly neurotic about that? I did the same thing then. Well, in all likelihood, not quite the same thing. Charles plans his words not by thinking hard: he assembles a dossier. He tends to his pimples and draws up tables and charts and he has journals for all aspects of his life. The titular “Rachel Papers” are literally all papers and journals and ‘documents’ that chart his endeavors to bed Rachel including plans and the like. Charles does not like to think for himself, he surfs on a crest of received rules and traditions. He judges people according to his society’s prejudices and it works embarrassingly well. And when he sits for his O levels, his essays are a collection of others’ ideas and judgments, although, judging by the book, it’s a very well written collection.
Despite all this, the novel is highly generic. Yes, Charles Highway is an extraordinarily enjoyable character but that’s about it. Everything else is pretty run-of-the mill. The way the story is narrated is unusual enough, but the writer clearly does not have the chops to do a great job of this yet, so what could be innovative falls flat and is merely amusing. That is quite enough for a book, however. The Rachel Papers is no masterpiece, but I enjoyed it every bit of the way. Funnily, what you are left with is not a feeling of exhilaration, and Charles Highway is too flat a character to not vanish into thin air the moment you turn the last page, but you feel the author’s smugness. Behind the last page you can see Martin Amis grinning arrogantly. The book exposes Charles Highway’s arrogance as youthful and premature, it casts judgment on his casting judgment on everybody in his papers yet it supports the basic drift of it.
Thus, the book seems very cold, aloof and so does his author. Having an unbearable author is never the book’s problem or else we would be bereft of many great works of literature and philosophy. Here, however, the reader is constantly being talked down to and the more the book proceeds, the clearer this stance becomes and the more it gets on one’s nerves. The fact that the book contains two Charles Highways, one’s the protagonist and the other’s the author is not its main flaw, but that the writer’s unable to make the book succeed in spite of this is. The constant self-congratulation is like a solid brick wall between The Rachel Papers and a really good book. Still. A recommendation. It’s a barrelful of laughs and it’s extraordinarily well (if intrusively) written. And while the smugness of the author may be a hindrance, the smugness of the protagonist is an attraction, it adds spice to the dreary olla podrida that the genre has become.
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