Review: The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

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The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis book cover
The Rachel Papers (1973), Martin Amis’s first novel, is a snapshot of teenage life for Charles Highway, a pseudo-intellectual and aspiring literary critic who, soon to turn twenty, is desperately clinging to adolescent freedom, studying for Oxford entrance exams, obsessing over typical teenage anxieties, and trying to bed an older women before his fast-approaching birthday. The woman in question, Rachel (a full one month older than Charles), is superfluous in many respects, the novel designed as an introspective study of the teenage male psyche, Charles Highway its grotesque but compelling narrator – a character of extreme paradoxes; unpleasant enough to reuse a condom and abandon a pregnant partner, yet meticulous and vulnerable enough to document all of his conquests and his family relationships.

Charles is vehicle and mouthpiece for the full range of teenage concerns and vices and, despite his brutal and self-centred narration one identifies with, or at least recognises, his adolescent ire and his brash, youthful intelligence. It’s not until late in the novel, when his true nature is revealed, that one loses the reluctant respect one holds for him. In true Amisian tradition, Charles is an unreliable narrator, so obsessed with the world he creates that he fails to recognise reality when he brushes up against it, preferring instead to experience life through a textual filter. Subtle clues (Rachel being, virtually, an anagram of Charles) suggest this internal reality continually throughout the novel. This unreality and Highway’s various brooding obsessions serve to create a barrier between the reader and the narrator, a post-modern technique that runs throughout Amis’s fiction and simultaneously emphasises the fact of fiction, whilst leading one to questions the creator’s omnipotence. Indeed, Charles’s thoughts and actions are rarely his own and never authentic, always led and mediated as they are, by culture and, more specifically, commodity culture.

The Rachel Papers is in many ways a statement of intent from Amis, separating himself from his father’s reputation and setting his own literary path. In this vein, the novel actively parodies the satiric genre, renouncing the moral certainty and “nice” comedy of Lucky Jim and its ilk, and setting out Martin’s own path into the comic grotesque. Indeed, there are parallels between a letter Charles writes to his father within the novel and the self-conscious process of Martin writing in the shadow of his own father.

The prose is savage, honest and reckless, as one might expect from a young writer, but it is also sharp and well constructed, betraying an assurance far beyond the author’s age and a promise of greater things to come. Although flashbacks and digressions are used skilfully, Amis doesn’t master the form until later novels and some passages become a little confused. However, the prose sparkles in places, Nabokovian influences already clear amongst a huge range of intertextual references, and the protagonist provides moments of perfectly observed humour. Beyond Charles the characters are mere brushstrokes but, far from a lapse on Amis’s part, this emphasises the self-centred nature of youth and Highway’s own emotional detachment and compartmentalization of life and its players. There are criticisms that might be levelled at Amis’s early style; too much of the prose is designed purely to show off his undoubted linguistic talents or worse, simply to shock, failings often associated with youth.

Initial reviews were mixed, and The Rachel Papers continues to split opinion, for some it is Amis’s majestic style in embryonic form, for others it is coarse and populated by conceited, unpleasant characters. If, as is often assumed, Charles Highway is in some way autobiographical, the brashness of the work must also be considered bold, if not brave. Though the novel is full of energy and potential it is clumsy in places and lacks the refinement needed to successfully achieve all that Amis attempts. As a precursor to later successes it is a vibrant introduction to Amis, a promise of great things to come.

The Rachel Papers is far rawer than Amis's later novels, and it's fascinating to read his earliest attempt at the form. I enjoyed the book and got through it quickly. Definitely recommended to Amis fans, to first time readers I'd still recommend Money.


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Film Adaptation of The Rachel Papers on Amazon (US) 

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