The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

rachel

This is the most disagreeable coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read. This is one of my favorite genre – for some unfathomable reason I’m still deeply interested in what it’s like to grow up, and of course I’m aware that some of the main themes of growing up are sex and our own wonderful, special, one-of-a-kind snowflake personalities which we are positively dying to exhibit to someone, but the protagonist of this novel is so disgustingly self- and sex-centered that my usual powers of empathy don’t seem to work here.

Charles, the 19-year-old protagonist makes it his goal in life to have sex with an older woman before he turns 20. The older woman in question is only about a month older than him, but so be it. Charles develops a crush on Rachel and he’s determined to get her. He employs quite a nerdy method for this end, by the way – he wants to win the heart of his lady with quotes from Blake’s poetry, with whole conversations and mini-presentations prepared before their encounters, and with books, vinyls and magazines arranged in his room in masterly and artful disarray that’s supposed to indicate how irresistible and tasteful he is.

Does he succeed? I won’t go into that. In any case, during his big Rachel-siege, Charles learns a lot not just about Rachel but about himself, too, and – supposedly – he gets somewhat wiser by the end.

Is this a good novel? On the one hand, it’s absolutely infuriating, because this story is exclusively about how Charles feels, what happens to him, and how he’s unable to accept the humanity of anyone else besides himself. I’m not sure how such things work now among teens, but I think/hope this must have changed since the 1970s when the novel is set. Anyway, this here is still an era where contraception is something only the girl is supposed to worry about, where it’s still unmanly and embarrassing for a guy to buy and use a condom, and where it’s cause for a major relationship crisis if the male finds out that girls also poop. (Naturally, girls don’t crap or take a shit – but according to Charles’ world view, they shouldn’t even poop.) And the reason I’m only talking about the bodily aspects of a relationship is because there’s no other aspect mentioned here in this novel. As regards the mind and personality of Rachel (or anyone else), the closer we come to that is Charles indicating that the girl probably doesn’t have a personality, and even if she does, it’s surely not very interesting.

On the other hand, though – if I look at this novel from a literary perspective, it’s not bad at all. I believe Amis when he says that this is one kind of life as a teenager: this nightmare of hormones, this huge desire to fit in, this posh-English elitism, this machismo, this constant smart-assery, this insensitivity to every other human, which means that even while you’re trying to win your girl, the only thing that matters to you is how you look in the other’s eyes, while not giving the least shit about how the other person is. So yes – it’s written convincingly.

And I understand and feel that this novel is satirical. Charles wasn’t meant to be a likeable teenager. (Which is a pretty big feat, by the way – creating a teenage character I hate. I like basically every teenage character in the history of teenage novels, starting, naturally, from Holden Caulfield right up to Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower.)

But even if  it’s a satire, and even if it’s written decently, it’s still a hateful novel for me. It’s not entertaining, not satirical enough to make me forget about its detestable sexism.

London Fields by Martin Amis

londonfields

Martin Amis feels like the Michel Houellebecq for one-time literary majors like me who don’t necessarily like to take everything seriously. Amis writes about the same topics as Houellebecq (the world is coming to an end; the era of emotions and „normal” human relationships is past; the only possible connection between two humans is sex; nothing makes sense any more; and so on) in the same postmodern way, and if I were inclined to take him seriously, he would make me want to cut my wrist like Houellebecq does. As opposed to Houellebecq, however, Amis does have a sense of humor, and he gives me the chance to not take him seriously. And this is a chance I gladly take – partly because I don’t think that life is terribly bad, and partly because – if life were really such terribly bad, I would only be able to stand it with lots of humor.

But now on to the novel. London Fields is the story of a carefully planned murder (or suicide), and symbolically the story of the whole world’s suicide. As regards the particular personal suicide and the characters in the novel: the protagonist is Nicola Six, a mind-blowingly seductive, manipulative sex goddess, and mistress of all kinds of erotic games – a woman who’s always been able to give men anything they wanted, except for love, a woman who’s always been able to get everything she wanted from men – except for love. It’s not at all certain that love would have changed anything in her life (Nicola Six is not exactly a sentimental woman), so her lovelessness in life is not the only reason why she decides to commit suicide – but it’s part of the picture.

Nicola, however, doesn’t want to go through the suicide-business alone – she needs someone who does her the favor of killing her. At the beginning of the story, she finds two possible candidates for this role. One of them is Keith Talent, a violent, not particularly winsome con man whose life consists of sex, booze, and darts, and who generally acts like a man perfectly capable of and willing to kill a woman, should the circumstances arise. The other candidate is Guy Clinch, a soft, gentle, exceedingly naive aristocrat, who doesn’t at all look capable of killing anyone – but Nicola Six is just the person to induce murderous rage in the most peaceful man on earth. And then there’s a third man here (and a fourth, hidden in the background) – these latter two are ironic alter-egos for Martin Amis: one of them is the person who knows the most about Nicola’s plans and is writing a supposedly true-life novel about Nicola’s way to self-obliteration, and the other one is also a writer, and he’s the person Nicola has been the most attached to all her life (or not).

Is this already sufficiently tangled, annoyingly over-complicated, and postmodern? I guess so. But I also guess that this is Martin Amis’ method. I haven’t read all his novels, far from it, but from what I’ve read, it seems that he likes to build his stories around a single joke. This is what happens in Money, this is what happens here, and this is what probably happens in some of his other works I either haven’t read or don’t remember anymore. Another typical Amis feature is that he likes to exaggerate (a lot), thereby making everything hardly-real, hardly-credible. Case in point: his characters’ name, and their habits and behavior: Guy Clinch with his out-of-this-world naivety; Keith Talent with his unsustainable habits of drinking, smoking, and womanizing; and Nicola Six with her one-of-a-kind sexual prowess.

And I’m glad Amis writes like this – this way I can pretend while reading that none of it is true. Sure, if I try to glance behind the exaggerations, the irony, and the unreliable narration, then I see how hideous and horrible all this is – but I don’t necessarily want to see all of this. And I appreciate it that Amis lets me decide when and how much I take him seriously. And I like it, too, that it’s also my decision how much I take this novel to be the suicide story of not just Nicola Six but of the whole world. Right now – not too much. Amis can be awesome when he deals with someone’s personal apocalypse but he hardly ever manages to make me believe in his large-scale apocalypses. In fact, I feel as if he himself hasn’t yet figured out – hmm – why exactly he thinks the world is ending, and what’s this world-scale apocalypse anyway. Which is just as well for me.