My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me. It’s such a rangy, well-travelled, big-cocked name and, to look at, I am none of these. – p.7
This is our first impression of the novel’s protagonist and he is an egotistical, full-headed and precocious nineteen year old. The novel is set on the eve of Charles’ twentieth birthday as he goes through his numerous files that he keeps on family and friends. The Rachel papers recounts his mission to sleep with an older woman, Rachel, before his twentieth birthday, before he leaves the turmoils of adolescence behind and is pulled over the arbitrary line into adulthood. There are family issues, particularly unresolved tensions between himself and his father, and Charles deals with this by writing long letters of accusations to his father entitled, ‘Letters to my Father’. The old halls of Oxford also beckons as he prepares to sit its entrance exam. Then there is the sex. Paragraphs and paragraphs devoted to sex, urges and bodily functions are recalled in far greater details than I care to know. One section goes for over three pages.
Reading this, I had the feeling that this contained an autobiographical aspect as Amis is the prodigal son of Kingsley Amis with big shoes to fill. The writing is passionate and intense but it was somewhat difficult to get involved in the story. Charles is not very likeable and nor is he meant to be. Readers are supposed to scoff and laugh at him but I found that many of his ‘funny’ comments were not at all funny. Many were misogynistic or sexist remarks, and although I understand that they were done in the context of the day, book and within character, I did not find them witty or satirical. Charles has no real redeeming features about him.
However, I did find Charles’ comment on the female bodily functions once they shacked up amusing and spot on. Neither of us defecated, spat, had bogeys or arses (p.176). There is so much pressure to pretend that the human body does none of these actions, to be clean and pure, that is becomes absurd.