Monday, July 3, 2017

The Rachel PapersThe Rachel Papers by Martin Amis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Thus I maintained a tripartite sexual application in contrapuntal patterns. This sort of thing: insert tongue, remove finger from ear; withdraw tongue, stroke neck, [...]"

Had I read Martin Amis' The Rachel Papers (1973) in my twenties I would have been extremely enthusiastic about the novel. Now, in my sixties, I certainly appreciate the author's phenomenally skillful prose, but I find the utter preoccupation with sex and focus on erotic techniques boring and the reading experience reminds me of a wonderful scene in Monty Python's Meaning of Life where a teacher and his wife demonstrate sexual intercourse to high-school students who are deadly bored and prefer to look out of the window.

Charles Highway is turning twenty. He is an aspiring writer, reads voraciously, and prides himself on skills of literary analysis. Charles is trying to get into Oxford and has to deal with preparatory courses and the entrance interview. Charles also despises his father: not only because hating one's father is an obviously fashionable thing to do, but also because the father is having an affair. But all this seems to be of secondary importance. Main motive of Charles's actions is sex and his entire being revolves around things sexual. Right now he is trying to seduce one Rachel Noyce, a girl he particularly fancies because she seems to be unavailable when they first meet.

Yes, I can vouch that this is how the disease of late adolescence manifests itself in a typical male of the human species who is in the final stages of building his persona to wear for life while at the same time dealing with the so-called "raging hormones." The "descent to manhood" - as the author aptly calls the phase - takes time (for many of us males a longer time than our lifespan) and manifests itself in self-obsession, self-centeredness, and frequent self-service in the bathroom or in bed. The accuracy of Mr. Amis' observations is top notch but I am unable to find much more than that in the novel. To use Charles' brilliant phrase I might ask
"Is that all it fucking is[?]"
The author's virtuoso writing reaches its apogee in a hilarious twelve-page passage that relates the consummation of Charles' lust: his first conquest of Rachel's charms. The reader may draw a rather obvious comparison to Nabokov's famous scene on the candy-striped davenport ( Lolita .) Well, also obviously, Nabokov's scene wins hands down! With equally skillful mechanics of writing, with the hilarious almost on par with the poetic, the literal is completely out of competition with the metaphorical. Another literary comparison the reader might make is between Charles Highway and Stephen Dedalus. While the latter searches for his soul the former finds his penis. Charles is an anti-Dedalus: not yet ready to look for real depth or meaning and fixated on reflecting on his feelings rather than on feeling them.

I suspect there is another reason why I do not much like this book - clever, hilarious, and extremely well-written as it is - it is probably because utterly shallow, callow, and egotistic Charles clearly reminds me of myself at that age. And this hurts.

Two and three quarter stars.

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