Is it worth it? My wife just got me a great book on how to make pizza and I need to bone up on the science of crusts. Plus there is writing like this here blog post that I want to do more of; it’s in my blood, man. Then there’s being a good father and husband and well-informed citizen and all the prayer and study that goes with semi-pro Catholicism. Plus there’s fitness and over-all self-improvement beyond just reading. All that takes time. Do I really have 1:22:30 to spend on this book that I am not exactly enjoying?
And so it is with the hero of “The Rachel Papers.” Charles Highway, is the kind of sex-obsessed 19 year old I avoided when I was 19. Or, since we were all sex-obsessed 19 year olds, he is expressive about it in ways I found insufferable then and don’t enjoy reading about now.
The plagiarism in “The Rachel Papers” is the thematic sort that Carraway speaks of—not literal, but I’ll pick a thematic victim: John Updike. Perhaps there are other models for graphic, comic sex prose that the young Amis drew upon. Or, it is quite possible given his obviously great talent, (I’ve gotten to page 174 after all), that Amis discovered lyrical lewdness on his own. But I’m gonna go with Updike since it reminds me of the first two Rabbit books, especially the second, which predate the 1973 publication of the Rachel Papers and were very much the buzz of the English speaking world way back then. Or so I have read.
To put it in concise, lewd terms appropriate for a concise, lewd novel: The Rachel Papers is a far too jizzy for my taste. Writers like Updike and Amis seem pleased with themselves for being able to find melodious ways to describe sperm. Soiled condoms and STD’s and p****es going into v******s are all described in minute detail, and in a cocky swagger—as if the rest of us still would prefer to asterisk-out the letters for genitals whether alone or in polite company. Intentional fallacy here, but it sure seems like Amis thinks it’s shockingly funny to read how “the village idiotess” jerkes off two teenage boys at once as they grip a fence and groan. It may have been in 1972, but today it makes me think, “Yeah, I don’t see something like that happening anywhere ever.” To read fiction about the high point of the sexual revolution in comparatively staid 2015 is to look at a quaint time that thought it was pure edge. (Warning: this claim will be disavowed by the end of this post.)
My favorite part of the book so far is when Charles, flailing about in his search for sex or love or whatever, bursts into tears. That part I buy, since there is plenty to cry about here.
Buried in the above paragraphs is a dose of praise: “obviously great talent.” That’s not backhanded. I mean it. I recently stumbled across a mere two essays of Amis’s and loved them. Here’s one of them, about Goodfellas. (Scroll down to the bold text for it.) I was so taken with his style that I had to go out and grab one of his novels. So, my praise: in this very book that I am often bored with, that I am rolling my eyes at, that I am in many ways not buying at all, I am still feeling that most guilt-provoking type of admiration: envy.
There is an excellent sentence on every page, but I will share just one. On page 173, shortly after I timed my reading speed and weighed continuing, I came across this description by Charles of his violent, alcoholic brother-in-law: “Norman was drunk enough to be manageable, yet he was also old enough to be wary of and hostile to undiluted youth, inclined to think that there was something inherently scurrilous about it and to feel wet and queer in its company.”
Wow. Nailed it. That’s exactly how I felt about Charles Highway and this whole book. That’s how I felt at 19 when I was exasperated with other 19 year olds. I never thought of my own attitude as “wary of and hostile to undiluted youth,” but it fits me too well. And that phrase, “undiluted youth”! There are dozens of examples of undiluted youths in this book, all of whom seem inherently scurrilous.
And maybe my discomfort with the jizzy tone is in fact a correct reaction: Charles is from a broken home. His dad is carrying on a flagrant affair, and it makes him angry and ashamed. His mother lives in a sort of catatonic depression. His brothers seem like complete assholes. His sister, with whom he is living, is beaten abused by the aforementioned Norman, and Charles is too meek (for all his sexual daring) to intervene (so far). He’s flailing around for something, anything, and he lands on sex. He has elevated one woman, Rachel, to the level of Love Object because, well, why not? What else has his society, his culture offered him to believe in or to pursue?
Mind you, I am not even done with this book and I already have a thousand-word post about it. So yes, it is very good. I feel uncomfortable reading about all the people Charles Highway bones not because I am a prude (really!) but because it makes me sad. In fact, it reminds me of another of my favorite Fitzgerald quotes, the mere title of his book of short stories, “All the Sad Young Men.”
And maybe that, the sadness not the shock, is the reason to spend another hour and twenty-two minutes with “The Rachel Papers.” I can call the sexual revolution “quaint” at my safe-remove, with my self-satisfied Catholicity and in my insulation from it in marriage, but the revolution was not quaint at all. It still isn’t. Amis, speaking in 2009, has said this of his own “pathologically promiscuous” sister, “She died at the age of 46, not of anything sudden; she was one of the most spectacular victims of the [sexual] revolution….Revolution isn't a flip. It's a churning process that goes on for a long time before the baby is born. It's not the instant replacement of one order by another.”
“The Rachel Papers”is to about world as it churns. It is, despite my defensive claims above, still shocking.
I will now avoid sticking-my-landing with the end of this post to add that it is also kinda funny.