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Reading Martin Amis's first novel "The Rachel Papers" it's hard to believe that it was written in the early 1970s. I have read and re-read this novel many times and always find new ideas to ponder but it is a book which I found difficult to review because it is one I have discussed often with other readers whose views are quite different to my own. My review of "The Rachel Papers" should come as a direct response, my reaction to the book, rather than debating points others have raised about its merits or its short-comings and I hope this is something I have achieved.
The book's central character is Charles Highway, a young man who sets himself the mission of sleeping with an older woman before his 20th birthday. Charles is bright - very bright - but also pretty lazy. He has obvious talents but squanders them, instead of studying had to make sure he gets into Oxford he spends his time entering data into his computer, building a file on Rachel, the chosen candidate for his mission. The reader discovers that Charles spends his life playing a series of roles to be the person he thinks he should be to succeed in his task. Before Rachel comes to the house he shares with his sister and her husband, Charles carefully styles his bedroom, dressing it with appropriate props like books he thinks will impress her.
Of course, things aren't straightforward for Charles. He has competition for Rachel's attentions from the foppish (and very rich) DeForrest who quickly develops suspicions about Charles intentions. The story sees Charles engineer a series of situations to achieve his mission but he hasn't considered the wider consequences. What price will he have to pay for his adolescent desires?
I love Charles - I find his youthful attempts to play the intellectual and impress Rachel with poetry and philosophical discussion rather endearing. He reminds me of another young literary hero - Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) in his brusque dismissal of things he doesn't agree with and which he finds "phoney". I must concede, though, that Charles did disappoint me. I would not say that his character changes over the course of the book, he merely shows himself to be the person he was hiding from Rachel to start with, but I did feel that someone I liked had let me down.
The books main characters can be split conveniently into two types by gender. The men are portrayed as weak and selfish: DeForrest is manipulative and sneaky, he tries to put Charles down in a somewhat sneeering way because he does not fit in with their circle. He wants Rachel but he does not try to win her affections by playing fair, he thinks he can do it by pouring scorn on his rival. Charles' brother-in-law is boorish and sexist. He tries to give Charles advice about snaring Rachel but he has no sensitivity or tact. Perhaps most unappealing of all is Charles's father, a horrible cad of a man who bullies his children to live their lives as he thinks they ought.
The women are depicted as naive and too trusting; while Rachel cannot be fully expected to see through Charles's role-playing I did find myself being a little annoyed by her failure to see through his pseudo-intellectualism at all. I found Charles's sister annoying because she unquestioningly puts up with her oafish, crude husband.
In typical Amis style, the book can read like a mini-dictionary at times; Amis has that uncanny ability though to place seldom used words in his books yet not deter the reader by so doing. The fact that the story is often referred to as having a strong possibility of being at least semi-autobiographical makes the style of writing even more appropriate here.
At times satirical, at times comedic and now and again very moving, this novel has much to offer. Despite its age I do not feel that it has dated, in fact I would go so far to say that in todays environment of "laddish" culture it is entirely representative. Charles Highway is a slightly arrogant young man (but one given to occasional pangs of self-doubt) who is conscious of the image he portrays and who wants to get laid. In that he is no different from the nineteen year old youths of the forty years since "The Rachel Papers" was first published. If Charles Highway was around today he would, no doubt, be trying to impress girls by leaving a Martin Amis novel lying around!
Available in paperback through Vintage, priced £5.99 , through amazon.co.uk
Martin Amis - the under-rated master of contemporary fiction Amis is the most exciting writer alive today. His books are gritty and real, and his humour razor sharp. The Rachel Papers, my favorite of his books, is a classic 'loss of youth' tale that am I disgusted to not find listed on this site. He writes with such a no-holds-barred style then you can't help but admire his front. His books are important and relevant and are capable of shocking, amusing and moving you with the turn of a page. I would recommend any of Martin Amis's books.
Charles Highway is determined to have a sexual relationship with an older woman before he reaches the age of twenty.