The Rachel Papers is Martin Amis' first novel, and to my mind it is his best. The story of Charles Highway, approaching his twentieth birthday and determined to sleep with an older woman (if only by a few months) before that day arrives, it is a novel with personal resonance for me, and, I suspect for Amis.
Having read the book at the same age as its protagonist, nineteen, I found the way in which Amis gets inside the mindset of that age unnervingly brilliant. In the repulsive yet compelling (and in this way prototypically Amisian) character of Charles Highway he not only deconstructs the adolescent psyche from the inside out, but forces readers of Highway's age to do the same to themselves. As such I consider it required reading for male teenagers.
However, it is highly recommendable to readers of any age or sex. Highway is surely one of the greatest characters ever created; the novel's brilliance is derived from this, and no further embellishments are necessary. This is character vile enough to reuse a condom, yet meticulous enough to keep individual notebooks about each member of his family. One highlight is his Anxiety Top Ten. Without giving away Highway's biggest problems I'll list the bottom end: "(7) Being Friendless (8) Insanity (9) Rotting Feet (10) Pimple in Left Nostril."
Highway's arrogant precociousness, shameless egotism and almost unbelievable repellence make for a unique narrative voice (the book is in the first person), which is simultaneously hilarious, foul and cringe inducing. The very essence of adolescence then.
It is noticeable that The Rachel Papers is the work of a young writer, but it is clearly the work of a great one and typically the work of Martin Amis. His way with words is less dynamic than usual, but more enthusiastic, and perfectly suited to his narrator. It would be possible to criticise some of the other characters, particularly Highway's seducee, Rachel, as being somewhat undeveloped, but they are all drawn without a line out of place, and if they seem flat, or neglected by the author, this can be attributed to Highway's self-centredness.
This is a flawlessly written novel in that the narrative voice never misses a step, and nothing ever falls out of place. The emotional core of the story is hidden beneath a perfectly measured layer of lightness. There is always some noticeable weight, but it is largely hidden beneath Highway's character and this makes him even more repugnant and entrancing, and makes The Rachel Papers an exceptional book.