I just came to the end of The Rachel Papers.
Actually, what am I saying? "Came to the end"?
I was like one of those cartoon characters, running straight off a cliff, pedaling the air for several seconds, before plummeting. I careered to the end. The abrupt finish-line of my Olympic 100p dash. (See what I did there? Topical Hooligan.)
Martin Amis is a savage writer. He is also, very clearly, an extremely intelligent man.
The Rachel Papers is a story about intolerable adolescent arrogance (inevitably stemming, of course, from titanic insecurity). I suppose – from a zoomed-out perspective – it's a kind of 'coming of age' novel. But it's the kind of 'coming of age' novel that Henry James might've written if he'd been rampantly heterosexual and dosed up on amphetamines.
What do I mean by that? How could a writer like Amis – whose prose is so angular, cynical, brittle, aggressive – possibly be likened to the elaborate, nuanced, increasingly (with age) fussy writing of James?
(I should add: I may wheel in a pejorative adjective like 'fussy', but be assured: I hold few authors in higher esteem than I do Henry James).
Well. Amis accomplishes - by the end of The Rachel Papers - a rather Jamesian coup de theatre. Via a technique called ironic inversion. This technique is a little like the 'twist in a tale' so beloved of short story writers ... but instead of being executed over the course of, say, 50 pages, it plays itself out across the rather wider-ranging (and more subtly-contoured) landscape of a whole novel.
And – whereas a twist-in-the-tale is presented more or less starkly to the reader, the ironic inversion is often invisible – because it has been developed so slowly. When he reaches the end of the novel, the unwary reader may well not even realise the extent to which his expectations have been overturned. Indeed, James typically does this so subtly and seamlessly that a good few critics (ha!) are utterly oblivious.
Take Portrait of a Lady, James's most popular novel. James sets us up to expect that Isabel Archer (the lady of the title) is going to become the victim of unscrupulous 'fortune-hunters', thanks to her large inheritance.
He plays upon the literary cliche that is 'rich yet innocent woman is seduced by cynical, blackhearted man; innocence is besmirched by loveless greed'.
But then goes on to invert the expectations. Gilbert Osmond – holder of the fortune hunter role – does end up marrying Isabel. But the point is: he actually does so out of love. Not cynicism.
Sure, it is love that does indeed prove misguided, and does indeed descend into mutual spite and acrimony. But the kernel around which it is built was in fact pure. Which throws the whole of the rest of the tired cliche into astounding technicolour.
Portrait of a Lady gives all the cliched framework of the conventional trash romance tragedy –but subverts it with genuine, complex psychology.
(Wikipedia, of course, totally misses this crucial fact in its trashy summary, setting its horns about James's finest crockery with taurean abandon. Are we surprised?)
The point of all this? Ah, yes: Mr Amis.
So, The Rachel Papers is a coming-of-age novel with an ironic inversion. As it turns out, it is twisted in on itself with an irony rather more uncompromisingly nihilistic (or, at least, more starkly painted) than any of James's.
The narrator is an arrogant, self-centred, hideously realistic 19-year-old boy. Narcissistic, manipulative, borderline misogynistic. But, maybe halfway through the novel, we realise with alarm that our initial distaste has somehow been transmuted: we are actually rooting for him –hoping that he does succeed in his pursuit of the elusive Rachel.
What's going on here? Why are we sympathising with this bastard protagonist whose ill-treatment of females we have already witnessed? Clever Mr Amis has been at work on us.
... and, magically, we have started to side with said protagonist. We have realised that we are seeing through his adolescent nastiness to a vulnerable, insecure child. Amis has maneuvered us neatly between his sights. We have started to believe (and, what's more, to hope) that, over the course of this novel, our immature narrator will come to see (however fitfully and incompletely) the error of his ways. And this will be thanks to the love of a good woman. Natch.
Amis, though, is resolutely unjamesian in the savage manner in which, in the novel's closing chapters, he brings us eye to unblinking eye with our own sentimental 'coming of age' fantasies – before (absolutely without mercy) crushing them.
As a result of this savagery and abruptness, I finished the book with a sensation reminiscent to that I might experience at the close of a very intelligent, very pacey, very well-made cinema semi-thriller. Something like Fight Club or Memento. It's that kind of a novel. Not, I think, a brilliant and enduring work of art. But an extraordinarily intense experience. One has been laid out, had one's wrinkles smoothed by faux-tender hands – and then been put through the mangle. Quite deliberately.
What would make it a brilliant novel – and more of a work of art?
For my money, if Amis had only half-crushed our sentimentality. Or had crushed it subtly, with a light seasoning of ambiguity, rather than thrusting its maimed, flattened corpse in our faces.
So intent is he upon achieving the breathtakingly unpleasant emotional effect of his close that he goes too far, is too extreme, and loses sight of realism. I don't propose to spoil the plot – actually, to be honest, I'm just too lazy to explain it all. I couldn't care less about spoiling anything ... everyone knows what's going to happen in a Shakespeare play, and that doesn't seem to spoil 'em much ...
... But, yes, I don't propose to tell you how the novel ends. But the weakness, I think, is this – that I'm left wondering, of Amis's narrator: Christ ... was that likely? Could anyone actually be that much of an idiot?
Interesting enough, as a thought to be left with, of course. But not with the delicate, torturous, balanced subtlety of a genius like Henry James.
Enjoy that? Why not cast an eye over Shakespeare hated Hamlet
– The Intellectual Hooligan: putting the 'lite' into 'literary criticism'