Martin Amis Essay - Amis, Martin (Vol. 4)

Amis, Martin (Vol. 4)

Amis, Martin 1950?–

An English novelist and critic, Amis is the son of the novelist Kingsley Amis.

Martin Amis … shows great promise in his first novel, and this is all the more hopeful since in The Rachel Papers he is labouring under the disadvantage of having to build his story of romantic mishaps and youthful self-discovery around a peculiarly obnoxious hero. Charles Highway is that drearily familiar specimen of post-adolescent English youth, the Early Bloomer, the Sixth Form Sneerer, that combination of middle-class privilege and A-level meritocracy who is such a delight for the dons and such a damn trial to everybody else until a few years pass and, mercifully, he either fizzles out or, more rarely, manages the breakthrough into rejoining the rest of the human race….

I can't help thinking that Mr Amis may have been slightly premature in tackling this particular subject. I hope that doesn't sound patronising; indeed, Mr Amis in his early twenties shows confidence and talent enough to take on anything—except perhaps Charles Highway at 19 years of age. I just feel that a couple of years further away from that age-group might have usefully distanced the author from his subject-matter; at the moment he sometimes gives the impression of still being rather intimately bound up in its concerns, and I think it makes him at once both too indulgent and too harsh in his judgments. Too indulgent, because every now and then one senses from the author a furtive, rather wistful desire to believe that there is after all something of value in Charles Highway's messy chatter, in all those dingy little aperçus and corny paradoxes and fifth-hand aphorisms. Too harsh, because Mr Amis, perhaps through fear of being thought sentimental, refuses to give us any indication that there may be—as in life there almost always is—something much finer in the human being lurking behind the smokescreen of Charles's defensive old chat.

What is truly depressing in the average university-bound bright young English thing is that the characteristic verbosity so often masks a deeper inarticulateness, in which the spirit struggles and fails to find outlet in true communication. This is a vision that Mr Amis declines to offer, though in Charles Highway he looks to have the perfect medium for it.

Peter Prince, in New Statesman, November 16, 1973, p. 744.

Well, you old fogies, you were right after all. Martin Amis has exposed the younger generation for the evil and wretched creatures you always supposed them to be, and his only consolation for them is that, once over the hill of adolescence, they may perhaps improve. The Rachel Papers is to its crypto-hero, Charles Highway, what the Confessions were to St Augustine, both of them enlarging on the motif of "but not yet." In Highway's strange case, the menace is not so much chastity (although that will come in time, no doubt) but maturity. His is a personal record of the pains and pleasures that loom before the age of twenty, and it is one apparently written during the five long hours before that particular number comes up for him….

Highway has the young man's gift for dissecting appearances: accents and social mannerisms are relentlessly exposed, while his own become self-conscious in the extreme. The narrative is often very funny indeed, but I suspect that Martin Amis is getting the last laugh. Charles Highway is so much the archetypal youth, of a certain time and a certain class, that he is necessarily a comic creation…. Martin Amis has fashioned a substantial character out of the rag-ends of our frantic contemporaries, and he has done so without any facile commitment to their means and ends.

Peter Ackroyd, "Highway of Good Intentions," in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 24, 1973, p. 674.

The demands of a comic novel, such as The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis,… often [depend] on maintaining a distance between the reader and the butt of the joke: too much sympathy means no laughter. But so does too little: we laugh, surely, because we identify with the character in a comic situation, without for a moment believing or caring what the consequences may be….

Most of the sympathy in Martin Amis's very funny first novel The Rachel Papers is reserved for his randy, scheming narrator, a privileged middle-class youth loose in London, just coming up to his 20th birthday, and almost getting trapped on the way by true love and a possibly pregnant girl-friend. Certainly the novel is obsessive: the only aim of young Charles Highway—there's a name for a Time Traveller—is to get the nubile if faceless Rachel into bed as quickly and often as possible. The obsession, however, seems merely indicative of ribald good health; sickness is limited to adolescent pimples, hangovers and a mild sexual disease. Martin Amis directs a determined, deadpan stare at his chosen patch of the lush teenage jungle, teeming with characters who are about as appealing as bacilli on a face flannel, described with the detached, excessively detailed physicality common to satirists down the ages. What holds the attention are not these limited characters, but the author's verbally inventive scrutiny of them; any time-travelling in this narrow environment can only be in the language itself.

Clive Jordan, in Encounter, February, 1974, pp. 61, 64.

The Rachel Papers impressed me hugely, though more with promise and felicities en route than with achievement. Amis is a moralist, equipped with some of the talents and Anglo-Saxon attitudes of Angus Wilson, a satirist dismayed, like Swift, by the body's incongruities and treacheries, a literary craftsman concerned with the difficulties facing the self-critical novelist in the 1970s who has 'seen it all before' in other writers from Aeschylus to Henry Miller….

The main defect in The Rachel Papers is that narrator and milieu lack the weight and texture needed to hold the author's themes and theses. Nevertheless, Martin Amis has made a brilliant start. Mutatis mutandis, as one of Highway's derided dons might have said, this book is Amis's Crome Yellow, and he is going to have to beware the same pitfalls that hampered and finally prevented the full development of Aldous Huxley's early brilliance.

John Mellors, in London Magazine, February/March, 1974, pp. 133-34.

In this lively first novel [The Rachel Papers], whatever you may think of the subject matter, it is the language itself that is most striking. Never faltering, Martin Amis moves the narrative with speed, sureness and wit through a complicated tale of a pre-scholarian autumn spent cramming for Oxford Entrance and in bed, at one time with a girl he fancies and for the rest, with a girl he loves….

Charles Highway, let it be said, could be one of the most annoying characters in contemporary fiction; his self love and personal admiration society, plus an overgrown larynx that leads to endless intellectual musings, mean that our view of the supporting characters is heavily coloured by his pontificating eyes. Our sympathy is brought out though, for Charles, because he does suffer from acne, asthma and alienation. In fact, it is only through his callow approach to life that the novel gains its vitality; and Martin Amis is able to display an extraordinarily wide range of knowledge and verbal-play-skills.

Although The Rachel Papers is tight, bright and full of talent, if I have one criticism, it is that the novel is not really placed in its time…. [The] novel could just as well be criticising the social banalities of the Twenties or Thirties, given a change of vocabulary.

Carol Dix, in Books and Bookmen, April, 1974, pp. 92-3.

[The Rachel Papers is] a moving book, winsome without being cloying, and a delight—perhaps the best teenage sex novel I've read since Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, and that was fifteen years ago. The Rachel Papers is one of those books that make you feel good: oh, it's very graphic (but how hard it is to do this well) and unabashedly sexist, but it shows once again what a greatly saving grace humor is, what a necessary complement to decency—and that Mother Nature works. Which, every once in a while, is nice to hear.

Eliot Fremont-Smith, in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Eliot Fremont-Smith), April 29, 1974, p. 76.

Genes matter; they really do. For years Kingsley (Amis père) has been writing sour, witty novels combining manic energy with crapulous fastidiousness, and now Martin (Amis fils), 24, comes on peddling hard, seemingly determined in his first novel to outrace Daddy's excesses….

Readers like me,… who respond to fiction through a layer of scar tissue, should have an entertaining time, for after a shaky start ["The Rachel Papers"] works very well, propelled by its author's absolute self-confidence over many a failed aphorism and clangorous conjunction of words. "The Rachel Papers" may not be as spectacular a debut as was "Lucky Jim," but it is forceful enough—funny, coarse and extremely energetic.

Peter S. Prescott, "Love's Highway," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), May 6, 1974, pp. 78-9.

The Rachel Papers offers a candid, groin-level view of teenage sex, circa 1970, in Swinging Britain. Amis' hero, Charles Highway, is no slouch at telling us exactly what-he-did-and-then-she-did. But since he is also a precocious and totally self-absorbed intellectual, this indefatigable swordsman is more interested in what he thought, pretended, felt, and above all what he wrote in his journal about his sexual happenings, than he is in the act itself. No experience is real for him until he's written it down. (Like Gwendolen Fairfax in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Charles never travels without his diary, to make sure he always has something sensational to read.)…

Unfortunately, The Rachel Papers, though it has some wildly funny lines, is less a work of fiction than a collage of brightly malicious cinematic takes about that hoary first-novel chestnut, young love and early sorrows. Amis' very with-it bites and snarls occasionally capture his generation's uninhibited idiom, but too many of the book's jokes are labored and unfunny. The Rachel Papers is quite short. Nonetheless, it soon seems long-[winded], a one-note tirade of teenage angst and absurdity that is basically more narcissistic than mocking. In the novel no less than in life, an unvaried diet of sexual activity is like the toil of Sisyphus, a futile, interminable expense of energy that never reaches the top.

Pearl K. Bell, "A Surfeit of Sex," in The New Leader, May 13, 1974, pp. 19-20.

[Martin Amis] has performed the rare and hazardous feat of extending his family's mastery of the comic novel to a second generation. While the younger Amis admittedly owes much to his father in terms of style, he is quite his own man in the subject he has chosen. "The Rachel Papers" is a chronicle of the end of adolescence. On the eve of his twentieth birthday, the protagonist, Charles Highway, reviews his latter teens with a wry nostalgia for a time that can never be recaptured—and one; he implies, that he has no wish whatever to recapture.

Amis's vision of adolescence is an unvarnished, terrifying, and hilarious one. It is casually crude, scatological, and obscene. Charles Highway applies the clever brain of an almost-man to the solution of all kinds of problems of gratification, sexual and intellectual alike. He is both a gilded and a repulsive creature; his charms and talents are thickly overlaid with a variety of impostures, on the one hand, and physical preoccupations—spots, dress, hair styles, toilet habits, sexual protocol—on the other…. He is the complete adolescent, and in that capacity a memorable figure.

But this is not a novel of stasis, though it might have been a most respectable one; Amis is more ambitious than that. He wants to show us process—the advent of Charles Highway's manhood in the form of a series of comeuppances and realizations—and he does just that. The first hundred and fifty pages of the novel are bright, lively, witty, clever, and rapid, but sometimes a little flat and labored, as if the author were just warming up his undoubted skills. In setting out the terms of Highway's teen-age existence, his irony and satire, his comically intense malignity (an Amis family specialty) seem a little too casual, too offhand to be really persuasive. But when Highway meets his match—first in his own mind, during the long-awaited (and very funny) seduction of poor Rachel, and then at the hands of a hip Oxford don who sees right through his phony-erudite examination papers—the novel springs blazing to life, and Amis, like Highway, comes of age. The book is well worth reading for these last seventy-five pages and their promise for the author's future. It is significant that Highway begins his adult life—at the stroke of midnight on his twentieth birthday—by wondering "what sort of person I can be" and by taking up pen and paper and writing the first amateurish paragraph of an intended work of fiction. I await Martin Amis's next novel with impatient interest.

L. E. Sissman, in The New Yorker, June 24, 1974, p. 102.

What is surprising about Mr. Amis is that at 24 he already possesses the authority and sophistication that most reviewers take years to acquire….

Ronald De Feo, "The Joy of Sex?," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), July 5, 1974, pp. 770-71.

The Rachel Papers has caused a stir in Britain—and, it may be, a dreadful thrill of excitement at what may by some be regarded as the spectacle of a crusadingly nasty adolescent unburdening himself in print. In fact, Mr. Amis is witty, clever, and concise, and has devoted himself to writing about, more than to being, a young person out to shock. But it's quite true, too, that there's an interest in its being a book by someone recently an adolescent: in Britain, adolescents don't often drop their cool long enough to write a novel, and don't usually divulge at any length what it's like to be cool….

Mr. Amis's novel is nasty, British, and short. This is nastiness aforethought: the scabrousness and scornfulness are highly calculated. Mr. Amis believes that the nastier things are, the funnier….

It may be that the novel, which is marshaled as a satire on the writer's age group, does not altogether take the measure of its hero's charm and success. He is a winner, and I would bet that this has helped to make the novel a winner. Equally, I would bet that many of those attracted to the novel are older, by a bit, than its author. The British have gone in fear of their exotic young, from whom they expect a nasty princeliness, by whom they expect to be thrilled and despised. I wonder if Mr. Amis knows the pleasure he has given.

Karl Miller, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), July 18, 1974, p. 26.