Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Rachel Papers, by Martin Amis (1973)

A friend has recently encountered Martin Amis's work; her raving has inspired me to go back and read some of his earlier work - I don't think I've read anything he's written since The Information. I had vague memories The Rachel Papers being about an obsession with a girl, one I had enjoyed meeting in his pages, but very little else so when I noticed this on display at the library, I picked it up. Amis certainly hits the ground running in establishing his character and tone:
My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn't think it to look at me. It's such a rangy, well-travelled, big-cocked name and, to look at, I am none of these. I wear glasses for a start, have done since I was nine. And my medium-length, arseless waistless figure, corrugated ribcage and bandy legs gang up to dispel any hint of aplomb. (On no account, by the way, should this particular model be confused with the springy frames so popular among my contemporaries. They're quite different. I remember I used to have to fold the bands of my trousers almost double, and bulk out the seats with shirts intended for grown men. I dress more thoughtfully now, though, not so much with taste as with insight.) But I have got one of those fashionable reedy voices, the ones with habitual ironic twang, excellent for the promotion of oldster unease...
The main thing about me, however, is that I am nineteen years of age, and twenty tomorrow.
He's an odd wee fellow: he has documented everything about his life, with folders of material devoted to his various family members, and others devoted to particular themes, such as Conquests and Techniques: a Synthesis. And so, he has The Rachel Papers. The novel is a countdown, from 7 p.m. through to midnight - not that that was his time of birth, but it is a time chosen for "dramatic edge and thematic symmetry" (his mother's parturition was "prolix and generally rather inelegant") - in which he accounts for the past three months. This time has been occupied cramming for the Oxford entry exams, watching the relationship between his parents turn to shit, finding he has issues with his father, and
seeing his sister and brother-in-law (with whom he is living) go through a terrible time.

Naturally, a girl called Rachel tends to dominate. Being a teenager on the brink of wandering "into that noisome Brobdingnagian world the child sees as adulthood", sex is a major pre-occupation.

But Amis deals with it in an entirely different fashion from anything I've read; sex is often something over which teenagers angst because, well, they're not getting much or over which they brag. For Charles, it is something to be endured; as a teenager, one has an obligation to oneself to experience sex. As an adult, that obligation shifts, and is owed to the partner. Here is what seems to be his first time:
Anyway: Gloria. I imagine that the older man thinks it's going to be hell and is often agreeably surprised to find its not quite, not quite as bad as he had excellent reasons to fear. With the youngster the very reverse is true. Gloria and I undressed like lifeguards, and without actually separating. I always forget the full drama of the change that came over her the minute she was underway. In normal circumstances, with her embarrassment in any kind of pre-coital conversation, her unassumingly pretty face, the stiff-limbed movements: you were a plaything of her unease. Once underway, though, Gloria would have been able to detect few noteworthy points of contrast between sexual arousal and rabies.
For him, the enjoyment is very shortlived (he even claims to fake it once), but then he has to spend hours seeing to Gloria's continued enjoyment. And yet, when he meets Rachel, he is convinced all will be different. His meeting with her is pretty cringeworthy - they're at a party, he notices her standing alone "like myself, excluded rather than merely detached from the festivities" which convinces him she must have soul. So, after watching her, thinking shes "fairly formidable, a bit out of my league really", deciding she's half Jewish on no evidence at all, he moves in for the pull:
'Hhullo,' as if someone had just informed me that this greeting had an initial h and I was trying it out...
'I notice you haven't got a drink.' This was an excellent line because there usually followed: 'Are you giving this party?'
After a bit of pretentious nonsense from him:
'Look, I ought to help clear up,' said Rachel.
'Nonsense,' I said. 'Don't do that. Leave it to whoever was frivolous and conceited enough to give the party.'..
'No, I really will clear up.'
'What the devil for?' I asked.
'Because its my party.'
Weeks later, he's wanting to call her, wondering if she'll remember - with such a crashing introduction, she's hardly likely to forget him! He is sort of sweet, however, poring over his notes, trying to get prepared to talk to her. Then, when he finally has a date, he's equally endearing in the time he takes to prepare for her - pity that to her, it is just a cup of tea, to which she brings her friends (and boyfriend). Ouch! But somehow they start dating, Charles always playing a role; for example, he's taking her to see the Blake exhibition at the Tate. Rather than just see what's to be seen, he goes along the day before the date "decked out like a walking stationery department, also with a pocket edition of the poet's work and the well thumbed Thames and Hudson", so that he has some views and speeches to deliver.

This compulsive need to be organised carries on into their love-making; he keeps his room in a state of "red alert", every move he makes is as if he is playing chess, adopted to trigger a counter-move on her part. And so we have a scene like this:
With my left hand I was making swirling motions on Rachel's stomach, outside her jersey, not touching her breasts but coming mischievously near them sometimes. Thus I maintained a tripartite sexual application in contrapuntal patterns.
What is lacking is any sense of joy on his part, any desire for her, or any feeling of exploration. Instead, it is a mechanical formulaic sort of love-making; the tragedy of which is that it works. I think the only genuine moment between them was the result of an accident; they're going to the movies, but "owing to the mendacity of the girl who answered the telephone" at the cinema, instead of the intended French New Wave feature, they find themselves at something called Nudist Eden. This is a documentary set in a nudist camp:
The camera patrolled the grounds, examined, the facilities. Grubby colour, low-budget incompetence; it had a nightmare quality: you can't tell whether you're going mad or whether everyone else is going mad: you stare around the cinema to check your bearings; you expect the audience to make some gesture of spontaneous protest. What was more, the producers could afford only middle-aged actors and actresses.
The thing sounds awful, and quite dodgy as well; Charles is quite worried that Rachel, with her posh tastes, will hate it, but after a scene in which the old nudists are trampolining vigourously for several minutes, she's all "I love this sort of thing". Only then does Charles truly look at her and think "goodness, I really do like her. A novel turn in our relationship. What had it been up to [now]? It didn't seem like affection, far less desire: rather a kind of gruelling, nine-to-five inevitability."

There is a period of a couple of weeks which are hardly recorded in his notes: during these two weeks, Rachel has moved in with him while her mother is away. While they do seem to have connected at times and had lots of sex (nine times one night), the close proximity is also showing Charles there is only one thing to do. Of course, being the kind of fellow he is, he can't sit Rachel down and talk things through; instead, he sends her a letter. I was left wondering what will happen to him; is he going to realise in the future that the Rachel he chased after, won and then rejected was simply a construct in his mind. What if he had allowed for more spontaneity and not only looked more often at who she was but also at what he really wanted?



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