The Rachel Papers
By Martin Amis
Review by Ben L (English)
The first time I read The Rachel Papers I was 18 and applying to Oxford – the same circumstances as the novel’s narrator, Charles Highway. (I have no gift for empathetic commune with fictional characters, and this lack of imagination very much feeds in to my reading choices.) The tale, however, is not a self-help guide. Rather, it tracks Charles’s attempts to seduce a woman called Rachel through a series of stratagems varied in nature but united in their shared exactitude and attention to detail. To give a flavour: one involves the pair going to watch a film, Charles having first watched it alone and rehearsed “an amusing commentary to be whispered at Rachel in the dark”. This is our hero, and here he is spending his evening “drinking sherry and making diagrammatic plans” for telephone conversations.
Somewhere below the surface level of the novel is a very learned an academically serious text trying to escape back into the grand literary history of Dickens and Kafka and Swift, the grand history from which it grew and alongside whom it can now legitimately share shelf space. The insistent allusions that pepper the text are a consequence to the width of Amis’ reading. Recognising one makes you feel happy; finding out about the other two thousand makes you feel sad. But such allusiveness describes an author steeped in the history of the novel, and this skill translates into all the things people don’t tend to notice – particularly the way plot devices are handled and character tropes are investigated.
But these are not the reasons I love The Rachel Papers. No, the reasons I love The Rachel Papers are its exuberant style and grotesque humour, and really these two things fuse into sentence after sentence stuffed with cracking puns. It still makes me laugh – something I find the so-called “canon” doesn’t do a lot, and certainty something it doesn’t do enough.
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis