Wednesday 18 June 2014

The Rachel Papers - Martin Amis (1973)

It was about time, I decided, that I paid some attention to the work of Martin Amis. After all he’s a significant figure in literature; named one the fifty greatest British writers since 1945, son of the late Kingsley Amis, friend of the late Christopher Hitchens and writer of lauded novels and non-fiction. Just as well I’d bought The Rachel Papers a few years ago when I was spending money on novels in an irresponsible fashion. In any case, it’s always good to be prepared, and fortunately Amis did not let me down.

The Rachel Papers
happens to be Martin Amis’s first novel and features the first person musings of nineteen year old protagonist Charles Highway. Charles is a perfect summation of what it is like to to nineteen: gross, arrogant and horny, very horny. Charles is on the verge of possibly entering Oxford to study literature. He’s also the writer of copious narcissistic tracts about his life, which includes the Rachel papers. This never ending document details just how Charles will win Rachel over and therefore have his way with an older woman (although Rachel is barely older than Charles) before he turns twenty and leaves behind his teenage years forever. Charles is an easy character to warm to due to his witty and engaging observations of, amongst other subjects, the British class system. Also The Rachel Papers has a narrative style that’s akin to Aldous Huxley letting his hair down over the course of a drunken long weekend, which is very entertaining indeed.

The Rachel Papers reveals a late teenage mind that is obsessed with not only girls, but also gross bodily functions. There is a great deal of detail about various bodily fluids, including descriptions of of what he hacks out of his bronchial lungs and his battles with massive pimples. Although there is plenty of juvenile humour to be had throughout the novel, The Rachel Papers is much more than it initially seems. The novel presents three significant relationship stages: the youthful and lustful first flush of love in the the form of Charles and Rachel, the problematic middle stages in the form of Highway’s sister - Jennifer and her husband - the proudly lower class Norman, and finally there is the passionless endgame of Highway’s parents. The nature of these relationships provides a clever subtext beneath the grotesque that results in a life lesson for Charles Highway which, in the end, cuts through his adolescent anger at his father and his own indulgent narcissistic tendencies.

There are also some literary themes at play, with Highway constantly referencing literary greats such as William Blake and innumerable British poets. It is no coincidence that Highway is attempting to gain entry into Oxford, as it provides Amis with an opportunity to satirize the British education system. Highway is also endlessly taking notes and working on his epically bitter ‘Letter to my Father’ which ironically, it seems to me, is a letter to his future self. It’s tempting to see Amis and his father within this strained relationship. Amis has admitted that Charles is partly based on his youthful self. There’s certainly a cutting self awareness to the narrative, as well as being absolutely hilarious and unashamedly male. Amis also manages to pull off the best sex scene I’ve ever read, which is unflinching in its realism without being cringe-worthy. The novel ends with some of the coldest closing lines I’ve ever read, the kind that only a very brave writer could produce.

Upon finishing The Rachel Papers I began to miss it like an old friend who I knew I wouldn’t see for a long time. As a result I’m now a total fan of Martin Amis and I intend to read the rest of his bibliography in order of publication. Amis has been a controversial writer over the years, one who’s raised the ire of many conservative commentators in Great Britain. Over the years his friend Christopher Hitchens staunchly defended Amis, something I’m willing to take on now that Hitchens is dead. I say this with tongue firmly in cheek of course, however it is apparent that The Rachel Papers is an easy target for accusations of misogyny. In its defense I have to say that the novel is not necessarily misogynistic in nature; it is much more accurate to view it in anthropological terms. Amis shows that there is a certain confidence in a young man’s stride, but unfortunately there is also an unresolvable duality at the heart of the male psyche that perhaps few woman (and men) will ever come to terms with.


  1. What a great review Jeremy. Though I haven't read the book, (or anything by Amis fir that matter), I really enjoyed reading your observations. 'A narrative style that’s akin to Aldous Huxley letting his hair down over the course of a drunken long weekend' sounds extremely appealing - although the gross bodily functions stuff does not.

    I'm interested between that divide between a misogynistic character and a misogynistic book. It seems that if the book is satirical, the writer is drawing attention to misogyny rather than partaking in it. Still, 40 years ago, most men probably had considerably different attitudes to women than they do now, so I daresay many books of the same vintage might be accused of misogynistic tendencies.

    1. Hi Annabel. Thanks for your kind comments. It's a tricky thing when it comes to accusing authors of displaying certain dubious attitudes, as mostly they are writing a character or satirising certain cultural attitudes. If, however, an author reveals certain attitudes in biograpies or interviews then they can be criticised in a valid manner.

      Hope your writing is coming along well :)

    2. Absolutely true. OR, if they reveal them unconsciously by always creating the same types of characters.

      The Ark is coming together, in fits and starts. Due out September 19th!

    3. Wow - getting closer! Good luck :)