on January 31, 2013
It is hard not to compare The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis's debut novel, to Lucky Jim, the best and best-known work by his famous father, Kingsley Amis. Both, after all, are novels of disillusionment, with Jim Dixon finding that academia is rife with petty politics that take away from the fulfilling life of the mind he once envisioned, while Charles Highway, the protagonist of The Rachel Papers, seduces and then discards a slightly older woman by the name of Rachel, concluding that she is not a suitable match for him. That, however, is where the comparison should end, for The Rachel Papers is a critical parody not only of Lucky Jim, but of a whole subgenre of writing about youth and its illusions. This kind of novel is ripe for caricature precisely because its features have hardened into a recognizable set of clichés: the uncouth but lovable narrator, for instance, whose rough exterior is a defense mechanism in response to the perceived injustices of the world.
While there are numerous novels that fall into this subgenre, two in particular stand out in the period preceding The Rachel Papers: Lucky Jim, as I have already mentioned, and The Catcher in the Rye. Amis never mentions the latter directly, but Charles does say on several occasions that he has been "reading a lot of American fiction," and it is not a long shot to suggest that Rachel's on-again, off-again American boyfriend DeForest has echoes of Holden Caulfield. For Martin Amis, the disjunction between tough exterior and sympathetic core is ripe for critique. The implication is that we, as readers, see past these defense mechanisms in order to perceive that, beneath the angry countenance they present to the world, characters like Holden Caulfield and Jim Dixon are really romantics, misled into unhappiness by a mixture of cynicism and bad faith. Amis sees this gesture as encouraging a falsely sentimental view of youth, one that overlooks its stupidity and capacity for narcissism.
Charles Highway is the antidote to such mawkish sentimentality. Seeing the imminent arrival of his twentieth birthday as the entrance point into maturity, Charles sets out to make the most of his remaining time as a teenager. He moves from his family's home to live with his sister, Jenny, and her boorish husband, Norman, in order to attend a school designed to help him get into Oxford University. Central to his farewell to his youth is his desire to sleep with an Older Woman, and that is where Rachel comes into the picture. Not that Charles is desperate to lose his virginity - indeed, he already has a more-than-willing casual partner in Gloria, and the reader discovers that he has had sex with several other women, often followed by painful bouts of sexually transmitted diseases. But the seduction of Rachel is presented as a meaningful Goal, an encounter with an Older Woman, experienced and knowledgeable. Of course, the issue of Rachel's age turns out to be farcical, since she is barely older than Charles, turning twenty herself during the course of their brief affair.
The Rachel Papers is an unpleasant read (what book by Amis isn't?), but this horribleness is strategic. Amis takes aim at every sentimental preconception we might have about his youthful protagonist, emphasizing in particular the vulgarity of Charles's body as he spits ("hawks"), leaks, squeezes, and vomits his way through the story. Charles is apparently not squeamish about any taboos, revealing his incestuous feelings toward his sister, for example, sniffing Rachel's dirty underwear, and theorizing calmly that, based on his tastes and level of sensitivity, he "ought" to be homosexual, thus turning his enthusiasm for women itself into a kind of perversion. Amis shuts down any avenue for seeing his protagonist as a misunderstood romantic: from his sexual behavior to his intellectual pursuits, the reader has the sense that Charles knows exactly what he is doing and how revolting he really is.
The one remaining illusion for Charles seems to be that life will change once he becomes an adult, an assumption that seems to come true when, in his Oxford interview, the professor neatly pulls apart the contradictions and intellectual misappropriations in Charles's arguments about which no one had previously dared to challenge him. But even Prof. Knowd's incisive assessment of Charles's abilities and shortcomings does not represent real maturity, but instead a sort of advanced pissing contest that suggests adulthood is a complicated continuation of, rather than a genuine break from, the immaturity of youth. The Rachel Papers is at its best when its focus is on this intellectual context. In recent interviews, Amis himself has said that the main shortcoming he sees when reflecting back on his debut novel is how awkwardly the plot unfolds. The novel does meander along at times, and there were moments when I thought that this book would have made a better short story - tighter and more focused - than a full-length novel. I can't say that I loved The Rachel Papers, but my own experience has been that it has provided much food for thought, and that, rather than pure entertainment, is the sign of good fiction.