02 April 2007

Book Review: The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

The Rachel Papers Counting down the hours until his twentieth birthday, Charles Highway reflects on the accomplishment of the last item on his teenage to do list. That item was an Older Woman, specifically Rachel, one month his senior. Staying with his sister and brother-in-law in London, studying desultorily for his Oxford entrance, he pursues her, recording everything in his notebooks as he does everything else in his life. But though Rachel seems perfect, things don’t quite go to plan

Amis certainly knows how to keep a reader interested and entertained; this book was very readable, often amusing, and I was intrigued by the possibilities of what would happen at the stroke of midnight. I was also interested to see the workings of English university admission in the seventies: multiple exams, interviews ... very different from what I had to do (put my preferences into a computer; I had the marks, they had the space, so I was in). Charles was an unusual character; when not occupied with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, he was reading centuries-old poetry and highbrow literary criticism. I didn’t find his reading tastes hard to believe; I actually went to high school with a couple like him (well, except for the sex and the drugs and in one case the rock ’n’ roll). Despite impending adulthood, he still at times behaved like a typical teenager, dismissing his elders with exaggerated descriptions of their flaws. His thorough annotation and cross-referencing of every detail of his life and acquaintances, and meticulous planning of events, managed not to appear obsessive. Rather, it almost seemed a potentially endearing sign of insecurity.

Unfortunately he spoiled this impression the rest of the time by coming across as a pretentious, supercilious, chauvinistic little git. He assumes that lone girls at a party probably have something wrong with them; divides the whole gender into ‘up for it’ and ‘seriously impaired’. He thinks less of Rachel because she’s ‘not a fastidious reader’ and because she won’t go down on him (although he does at least have the good grace to feel ashamed after he tries to force her). His Oxford essays are ostentatiously intellectual; I was delighted when the don interviewing him told him to quit reading the critics and just decide whether or not he liked the poem and why. Not that I expect it made much difference; by the end of the book he hadn’t changed at all. And there really are only so many times you can stand to read about a character hawking up spit or powdering his balls. Yet though I disliked Charles, I didn’t dislike the book.

Rating: B-


Anonymous said...

I vaguely remember seeing the movie, and vaguely remember liking it. I wouldn't mind reading the book sometime!

Matthew Selwyn said...

An interesting read. I've just finished my review of The Rachel Papers, and I'd agree. Charles is not a particularly likeable character, but that has never bothered me greatly. It troubles me more when I identify with unpleasant characters.

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776