The Loveable Douchebag: On Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers

 

Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers, his first novel which was published in 1973 and was made into a movie in 1989 starring the beautiful Iona Skye (who played Diane Court in Say Anything, my favorite film of all time, despite its utter cheesiness) revolves around the pre-adult life of Charles Highsmith, a high-strung, arrogant, alcoholic, sex-craved junkie, and his pursuit to seduce a young woman named Rachel. During the chase, we also find him struggling with his hatred for his father, his sister’s hostile and cold relationship with her husband and his fearful interview that he will have to face to get into Oxford. In the midst of his attempts to get Rachel into bed, he begins what he calls The Rachel Papers, several scholarly and critical bodies of work where his plans and his ploys are, in detail, collected and archived, as well as a record of his day-to-day activities concerning the very attractive and mysterious Rachel. Eventually, like most stories that begin in the manner which I have stated, the huge prick that is our protagonist realizes that his desire for Rachel is no longer just carnal, no longer a need to simply just screw and be done away with her. Inevitably, he falls in love and longs to begin a relationship, which is complicated by sexually transmitted diseases, Rachel’s American lover, the crying and sexually-inadequate De Forest, and his almost deadly lifestyle of party drugs, unprotected sex and alcohol-binging. Regardless of the ordeal Charles’s comes into contact with, he perseveres, and eventually Rachel succumbs to his efforts. The novel, primarily, is a meditation on juvenile desire and the erotic world of the discovering and precocious pre-adult, told from the point-of-view of Charles Highsmith. At the same time, it poses the age old inquiry on what happens after a powerful and irrepressible desire for something is achieved and realized, and the subsequent decline after, which is always one of the premises which have intrigued me as both a writer and a reader.

One of the successes of this novel lies in Martin Amis’ achievement in making one of the most pretentious and vile of douche bags loveable. He is an ass and there is no reason why anyone should found him appealing. It remains a mystery why Rachel wanted him in the first place. But while reading the novel, the reader cannot help by sympathize with him, relate to his plight, root for him, and hope he wins Rachel. And this is achieved because of how the narrative continually pokes fun at Charles. Since the story is told from his eyes, from his mouth, he unknowingly exposes his weaknesses and all of the issues he attempts to bury deep in his psyche to the readers. As the story progresses, his pretentiousness, his condescension, his arrogance, his insecurities, his magnanimous inferiority complex and all of his other fragilities is made clear to the readers. This is the motivation for his insatiable appetite and for his incredible need to do acts of self-destruction. This is the reason why he thinks of himself as brilliant, as an intellectual in a sea of dunces. And while we laugh and find so much amusement in the plethora of foolish ideals and thoughts that he possesses, we somehow understand him. Despite his despotic, disgusting and decadent nature, we hope that he does get into Oxford, that he gets Rachel and that finally he confronts his father. For this, he becomes one of the most fucked-up and complex juveniles one can ever meet in literature.

On a more unscholarly note, one that forsakes everything I have learned from New Criticism, in an interview done during the initial publication of this novel, Martin Amis mentioned that the novel is in nature autobiographical. When I learned this, I am inclined to think that this is one of the flaws of the novel. Certainly, I found it riveting and interesting, I adored the very barbaric and crass language employed, but I found the character of Rachel to be quite weak (And I don’t mean to insult the real person who supposedly inspired the character, assuming that Rachel was really taken from real life). The novel never conveyed why Rachel became the object of Charles’s affection. Rachel is never shown to be ideal, desirable or even interesting. Moreover, the novel does nothing but exposes her deterioration and breaks her down into why she’s unattractive. Since I am a demanding reader, there is a part of me that think that, at some point, Rachel was portrayed negatively and unfairly. Moreover, when Charles finally leaves her after his moment of self-enlightenment, why do we sympathize more with Charles rather than her lover? Why do we feel such relief and such fulfillment at the end of the novel when Charles has gotten rid of Rachel and is left alone with his pen? Could this perhaps be the intention of Amis when he wrote the novel, for it to be his salvation, his final severance from his Rachel?

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