With some misfortune I managed to choose to write for the Valentine’s day issue of The Student rather than any other ordinary issue. Not that I particularly disapprove of the celebration of amour, it’s just that I already pre-empt cringing at anything I write on the subject. Nevertheless, here we are. Quite blandly, I have chosen to write a book review. More exciting though, I hope to at least a few of you, is my choice of book; Martin Amis’s debut novel, The Rachel Papers (1973). What better text to review in light of Valentine’s Day than one about the romantic misadventures of a self-preoccupied teenaged boy? I can’t think of one more irresistible.
For those of you who haven’t read The Rachel Papers—first of all, please do so. Narrated by a young man playing on personal experiences of youth and the liminal age between boyhood and manhood, the novel is engaging in that it is believable—however obscure the protagonist appears. Charles Highway loves the idea of his own intelligence and tact, yet he is, as I imagine a number of boys around the age of nineteen to be, wrapped up in thoughts of sex and feelings of desire. In The Rachel Papers, the specific subject for Charles is, not so surprisingly, a girl called Rachel. In fact, Charles not only ‘desires’ Rachel, but he is obsessed with the idea of her and that of loving her. The reason for his infatuation doesn’t come across in any clear way, not even to the protagonist himself, who, at several moments in the novel, floats the question and crudely ponders Rachel’s merit for gaining his attention. She’s not particularly clever, he remarks at one point, rather dull really—but this might be Amis’ point. It is never really about Rachel herself and the book title alludes to this. What the novel is about, what Charles Highway is really concerned with, are ‘the papers’. His neurotically thought-out and planned methods of seduction, along with his immaculate waste-of-time notes on the girl (and everyone else he knows for that matter), are what truly thrill the self-proclaimed prodigy and fuels the intrigue for the book.
The character’s concern for the most bizarre details—ranging from the selection of literature that he lays out in his room (often Blake’s poetry, which he deems fit for seduction material) to the study of artists and their work before a gallery date—plays a large role in the characterisation of Charles and the interest he inspires in the reader who is impelled to anticipate the next outré move of his. With this strange combination of relating high-wired methodology with gross boyish overtones, The Rachel Papers becomes a work of comedic genius. The content is alienating enough for a female reader to laugh at its absurd nature, yet the novel is narrated with a confident wit that is embarrassingly charming—at least for a reader who might not wish to admit that the character of Charles Highway evokes any sort of attraction. There is no escaping it, though; Amis manages to create a character equally appalling as he is appealing.
Besides the intricate characterisation of the protagonist, another success of the novel lies in the author’s famously pretentious style and (ab)use of language. There is a certain allure in works that adapt boastfully decorative language for the purpose of highlighting the author’s intelligence—a charm that holds as long as the author doesn’t get carried away with their self-aggrandizement and remembers to pair their mastery of words with an engaging tone. Amis does not repel his readers; while embracing grandiose language, he also mocks it. A refined verbiage is all well and good, but voiced through an excessively proud nineteen-year-old, the impressive language feels exaggerated. The author has acknowledged that the narrator’s persona has an autobiographical origin, which adds an interesting element of self-satire to the novel. The pretentious language and the strangely loveable git we laugh at, may in fact be considered young Martin Amis himself. What a way to secure his readers’ sympathies without attempting to hide his crude ruminations and egotistical tendencies.
Anyways, with all my praise, a bit of humble critique must be added in regards to the ending of the novel. Quite obviously foreshadowed, the love affair between Charles and Rachel doesn’t work out. The protagonist’s manic tendencies as a suitor and extreme mood swings throughout the novel aren’t typically examples of building blocks for a successful relationship. It isn’t even Rachel who decides she’s done, but Charles, who loses interest as quickly as he gained it. He ‘falls out of love’ once his glamorized image of Rachel is tainted with reality—the downfall, quite ridiculously, begins when he realizes Rachel is capable of going ‘number two’. He is no longer impassionately blind to the grotesque humanity of the girl, and the novel concludes on a note that anticlimactically affirms the reader’s suspicion; that the romanticization of Rachel was never more than a momentary infatuation that befell the adolescent. At the end of the day the novel is a bildungsroman with a predictable structure and slightly disappointing end.
Finally, before I end this rant of a review, a word or two should perhaps be included regarding what The Rachel Papers has to say about our ideas of romance, and how Amis challenges them. The novel revels in its message about young love; that there is rarely anything important that young people have to say about it. Forget Romeo and Juliet who professed their profound love for each other at fifteen. The reality of adolescent courtship, to Amis at least, is that it is superfluous, fleeting, and utterly based on selfish desire. Not very romantic, but possibly true for characters such as Charles Highway, who are simply looking for one “last teenaged fuck” before emerging into adult life. Despite this uninspiring depiction of young love—I certainly recommend The Rachel Papers, which only leaves me looking forward to the author’s later, more refined, and more acclaimed, works. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Image via Flickr by Gerlos