Review: “The Rachel Papers” by Martin Amis

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.

Reading notes.

Review: “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James

I sobbed in despair: ‘I don’t save or shield them! It’s far worse than I dreamed. They’re lost!’

Henry James’ curious gothic short story remains very ambiguous. More well known for his novels than short stories, exploration of women and society rather than gothic, horror tales, this short story shows a lesser known side of James. Turn of the Screw is told to an unknown narrator while he is staying in an hotel. The story survives in an old journal that once belonged to the young governess who is now long dead. It is her tale that we hear.

Taking up a governess position in the isolated country side, she is placed in charge of two young children who have been recently orphaned. The children’s guardian, their uncle, while generous with his wages and flexibility to the young governess has one condition – that the governess must never bother him with anything and that she should deal with everything as she sees fit. Once installed in the isolated mansion, the governess (who remains unnamed) suspects that something sinister has taken place on the grounds. She instantly falls in love with her young charges, Flora and Miles, who appear to be the most beautiful and angelic children. However, the governess soon realises that they are haunted by Miss Jessel, the previous governess, and Peter Quint, a previous groundsman.

Turn of the Screw is unlike any other gothic, horror story I’ve read. There’s the suspense and the chills and thrills but the horror is what you imagine yourself. The ambiguity throughout the story, with James refusing to spell out in detail what the exact horrors are, keeps the suspense up. While it is short story, the writing is very dense and intense and it seems so much more than a short tale. Character’s are so in-depth that I didn’t realise that the governess remains nameless! It is, however, not an easy read but it is one of those tales that I will go back to from time to time in order to gain new understanding.

Review (unfinished): “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty

I was thrilled to stumble upon this book at my university library because I never knew that The Exorcist was an actual book. I haven’t seen the movie since I’m a scaredy-cat but I knew I’ll fare a little better with books.

I read the prologue and the first chapter and I could not bring myself to go on any further. While there were a few spooky hints the writing simply plods and I was highly aware of each and every word and sentence. The writing is clunky, to say the least. I was annoyed at characters, not because the characters were annoying, but they were annoying because of the writing. Blatty’s persistence in using short sentences filled with adjectives contributed to this:

“Regular breathing. Heavy. Deep.” and “Sharon Spencer. Fresh. From Oregon.”

That just really annoyed me and it didn’t work in with the rest of the writing. The dialogue was somewhat cliched and patronising. When I got in the second page of the second chapter and read, once again, that the new character was described in those short, annoying, adjective¬† – I just gave up.

Perhaps I’ll come back to it again in the future. But for now, I think I might go get the movie.

Review: “Slaughterhouse Five, or, The Children’s Crusade” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

So it goes.

Long regarded as one of America’s great works, Slaughterhouse Five is a unique and provocative novel. The story begins with a narrator who shares common facts of Vonnegut so readers are to think that this book will be an account of Vonnegut’s life. The narrator tells us that he is in the process of writing a book about his experience of the infamous Dresden firebombing near the end of World War II. By the end of the first chapter, the narrator switches over and we are now reading about a man called Billy Pilgrim instead, who was also in the war and survived the Dresden bombing.

The story has one of the most amazing timelines I’ve ever read, and it is credit to Vonnegut that I was not lost once. The main story of Slaughterhouse Five is Billy Pilgrim’s ability to time travel. At moments of stress, Billy’s mind travels back and forth in time with no warning. He is also later kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and made to live in a zoo. The Tralfamodorians have a unique philosophy for their outlook life – everything happens because they simply happen. There is no reason. Vonnegut coins his famous saying, “so it goes”, which comes from the aliens in the text. They believe in eternity and pity humans who cry at death. Death does not exist to the aliens because it does not signify that somebody is gone forever. Rather, that person is only dead at that certain stage, that certain moment, that certain scene, and that they remain alive forever in other scenes. People can never die.

I have been reluctant to pick up this book because I’m not all interested in books about the war. I know I’m missing a whole genre and significant section in literature, where there are huge amounts of books that were published during the Cold War who criticize the recent WWII, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. What surprised me about Slaughterhouse Five is not its pretext about war but rather its underlying philosophy. Nobody can ever really explain the atrocities of war, what the human race went through, the indescribable acts they committed, and why some survived and others didn’t. I suspect the reason behind Billy’s time travel is due to his post-traumatic stress. To escape the atrocities during the war, he shifts his mind, and to which he simply never recovered from.