Charles Highway is about to turn twenty, attempting to enroll at Oxford University, and constantly trying to fuck anything that walks. Within the novel itself, ‘The Rachel Papers’ is what Charles calls a collection of diaries and folders that detail every attempt of his to seduce Rachel; a girl who isn’t giving in to his advances as quickly as other girls usually do.
Published when Amis was only 24, The Rachel Papers both captures and satirises the egotism and precociousness of late male adolescence. Charles is clearly of the mindset that everyone outside of a small age bracket is missing the point, and that he has it all figured out, whereas quite clearly the opposite is true. A particularly biting scene with an Oxford dean targets Charles’ wish to appear intelligent rather than actually be intelligent.
The most laugh-out-loud sections of the novel come when Charles is being horribly misogynistic. ‘Since Henry Miller’s Tropic books, of course, it has become difficult to talk sensibly about girls’ cunts’ is a particularly memorable line, followed by the most disgusting description of the female anatomy I’ve ever read, which had me simultaneously gagging and laughing. Phone call transcripts interrupted by Charles commenting on that particular girls’ character are vile and hilarious.
Behind the plotline of Charles and Rachel sits, through Charles’ throwaway comments, a secondary plot revolving around his sister and her older husband. These two characters are particularly well formed, and at times the reader’s interest will sway to them over Charles’ tales of sexism and seduction. It’s a shame that the same couldn’t be said for the characters of Rachel and Geoffrey – Charles’ two main peers – who seem there to move the story along rather than depict actual humans. An explanation for their lack of dimension could of course be that Charles is a self-absorbed narrator and sees no need to flesh out his friends and acquaintances, though from a reader’s perspective, it would be interesting to know more about Geoffrey’s motivations for constant drug use, or Rachel’s family history.
Martin Amis is now, obviously, a hugely successful and celebrated author, named in countless lists as one of the greatest post-war novelists. His debut novel is mostly successful, and is really funny in its shocking way. It’s impressive how the dialogue of teenagers hasn’t aged at all; the people around Charles talk like the teenagers of 40 years later, even if Charles opts for more of a Wildean turn of phrase when interacting with them.
As a narrative the novel is well organised, although the characterisation of several key players leaves something to be desired. With its tales of reused condoms, STDs and creepy homosexual tutors, The Rachel Papers is an entertaining read showing a satirical insight into the development of the male id, though not truly commenting on it. From 2013’s perspective it is interesting to see that Martin Amis, now a well-established master of the form, started with a flawed but wickedly funny work.