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on 9 April 2013
The Rachel Papers was first published in 1973. As an up-and-coming literary critic, with a famous novelist father and a job on the TLS, Martin Amis's debut novel was always going to set the literati aflutter. The book itself was an assured performance and one that openly signposted the themes Amis would rework over the next forty-years. It may be a defiantly adolescent book, solipsistic and arrogant, over-written and pretentious, but it is also very funny. In fact, its humour redeems it, as there are many flaws, some of which have continued to undermine Amis's oeuvre to this day.
Charles Highway is a nineteen-year-old on the cusp of turning twenty. But before he reaches the 'noisome Brobdingnagian world' of adulthood, he feels a cathartic urge to relate the turmoil of the past few months, a tumultuous period beset by existential terrors. Nevertheless, his primary concern, despite the worries of his Oxford entrance exams and his dysfunctional family, has been the seduction of Rachel Noyes. Their relationship, though, for all its frantic interplay, merely provides Charles with a springboard for his philosophical speculations, puerile rants, and disquisitions on gender. Amusing, yes, but they leave Charles looking increasingly abhorrent, a feeling reiterated by the novel's callous denouement.
As a critic, Amis has always been rather scathing of cliché. The Rachel Papers, however, is strewn with clichés and loose writing. On the very first page we have 'avoids like the plague' followed by the sloppy alliteration of 'haggard hippies' and 'precarious queers getting their caps and crowns'. The novel may be narrated by Charles Highway, and therefore not Martin Amis, but there is rarely much distance between the styles of Amis's narrators and his own acerbic prose. So: is Amis poking fun at Highway's literary pretensions, or are these genuine faults in the text?
Although it is unwise to read a book with the author's life in mind, there is simply too much here to miss. Charles criticises Vanessa for her 'mid-Atlantic accent', yet this is the authorial accent of all Amis's fiction; furthermore, the narrative also pinpoints two of Amis's most enduring foibles: his incapability 'of using words without stylizing' them and having a 'vocabulary more refined than...[his] emotions'. Even so, Amis's youthful cockiness is easily forgiven. The novel may have its blotches, but it was a necessary apprentice work, and one that opened up the pathway to his undisputed masterpiece: Money.