Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

This is Martin Amis' first novel (1973), and rather autobiographical at that. One can clearly see the seeds of genius in the incredible vocabulary and word command as well as the sense of humor in this dramatic monologue. There is an extraordinary candor about bodily functions. Modern readers will also pick up on a clearly articulated misogyny. Amis has always attributed this to his characters, rather than himself. His 4th book, Other People, from the woman's vantage point was a reaction to such comments from critics. Ironically, this freshman effort won England's Somerset Maugham award, the only novel of Amis to have such a distinction. The American writer Jacob Epstein plagiarized much of the book in Wild Oats, an account of which was published in Thomas Mallon's Stolen Words. The novel is dedicated to his girlfriend Gully (Alexandra Wells), but according to his memoirs (Experience, p. 264) Rachel was modelled after his first love, whose name he never reveals.

The Rachel Papers is the story of events in Charles Highway's last few months as a teenager. Indeed, the 24 chapter headings span the last 5 hours of his 19th year. Quite simply, he wants to enter two things - Oxford and his latest girlfriend, Rachel. Both are within his reach, but will require work. Both efforts are so calculating that they extinguish the passion that originally motivated them. Rachel's surname Noyes (No, then Yes) betrays the fact that it will take him two tries to consummate his relationship with her. Of course, in the end, he loses interest in her rapidly. As he comments to his father Gordon (a dead ringer for his own father, Kingsley Amis) "why does it take so long coming and so little time going ?" (p. 225). His life is lived vicariously through his beloved literature. William Blake is used as seduction material, he even mentally recites scrambled lines from T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock" and "Ash-Wednesday" (pp. 165-166) to delay orgasm.

Diedrick points out three important literary allusions (Understanding Martin Amis). John Keats' poem The Eve of St. Agnes is a sensuous rumination on the relationship between romantic-desire and self-deception. As soon as Madeline and Porphyro consummate their passion, wind and sleet assail the windowpanes of Madeline's chamber, portending future troubles. Right after Rachel reveals to Charles that she has lied to him about her father, Charles reports that "the wind outside, which has been strong all evening, started to make cornily portentous noises, cooed from behind the cellar door, fidgeted with the window-frames" (p. 212).

The chapter subtitled "The Dean of St. Patrick's," is a reference to Jonathan Swift. The unnamed poem that shapes this chapter is the once-infamous "Cassinus and Peter," a satirical portrait of a Cambridge undergraduate driven to hysteria by his discovery that his beloved "Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" When Charles notices a stray pair of panties, he says "after I had been kissing and sniffing at them for a while I turned them inside out. I saw: (i) three commas of pencil-thick pubic hair, and (ii) a stripe of suede-brown shit, as big as my finger." (p, 185). This is a turning point in the book as Charles has a graphic reminder of Rachel's bodily nature. Diedrick elegantly nails it "Despite his longing for authenticity, his Keatsian desire to embrace pure sensation, few of Charles' experiences are direct ones. In one of his many moments of self-criticism, he indicts himself for this," "I will not be placed at the mercy of my spontaneous self" (p. 184).

There is a reference to Kingsley Amis' first book, Lucky Jim. His favorite maxim is "nice things are nicer than nasty ones." Charles has clearly read Lucky Jim, because he replaces it with "surely, nice things are dull, and nasty things are funny. The nastier a thing is, the funnier it gets" (p. 91). Diedrick points out that we are seeing Amis' own literary manifesto - one part exorcism of his father's precedent, one part declaration that his own province is the comedy of the grotesque.

One criticism of the book is that the serious emotional scenes are inadequately realized or curtailed. Glibness and calculation so dominate his accounting of his relation with Rachel, he fails to imbue it with emotions that are true. When Rachel first rejects him, he says "I felt completely hollow, as if I were a child" (p. 88). This reaction is not what the reader expects.

Another "rictus" sighting (p. 164).

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