‘The Rachel Papers’ Papers

[This is the only paper I had to write all semester, well, that I had to write in English, and my professor was cool and said I could get creative with it. I don’t know if it’s interesting without having read the book, but I figured I’d post this just in case it was.]


I met that wimp Charles Highway on his twentieth birthday. Little bastard had the audacity to tell me that he was born at the strike of midnight after he had volunteered that it was his birthday in the first place. I was happening along through some town in England just after I graduated. It was December, in case you were wondering, and I’d talked my dad into sending me to Europe for a few weeks. I bumped into this skinny kid who looked at me like he thought I was Jewish for a second and then said excuse me with the most intentionally indistinct English accent I’ve ever heard. I said, ‘That’s fine. I’m kind of lost, actually, so it might be my fault. Do you know any pubs around here?’ I noticed he had a briefcase with him. He said something in a different accent than his first, more snootily British and kind of condescending, but oddly interested, inviting to show me one. After we got inside and my nose thawed out I soon realized he was already drunk, and he smelled like talc. I thought he had the sniffles at first, but I know now it was asthma. After he told me it was his birthday and I bought him a drink (partially to be nice, partially because I was bored and it was funny when he talked to other people and didn’t think I noticed his accent vacillating), he started telling me about “The Rachel Papers.” He ended up passing out for a while, his “dinky black suitcase” open and his narrative exploits my sole company.

1:05 am: He sure is a manipulative little prick, I thought. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I could tell he was pretty smart, and he certainly had some ingenuousness to him, but you could tell he was trying to get rid of it. His writing had a certain smugness, and I wasn’t at all surprised to find his wavering accent was intentional (although he thought he was much subtler than I thought he was). At the same time, he was so clever, and his little manipulations of people (which I’ll get to later) were generally so benign that I have to admit he was likeable. He had the usual oh-crap-I’m-growing-up-it-must-be-momentous angst, and your typical twenty-year-old’s disdain for his father, but his had a special vitriol for his father’s newfound wealth and fitness. His father hadn’t just become successful and fit – he had also taken to taking mistresses, and had stopped staying at home save for the weekends. Against the depiction of his virile father was his description of his mother as a greatly depreciated heap of a woman, followed by his assumption that his mother must sometimes worry when his father’s “weekend with the family would suddenly and irreversibly become his day with the children” (pg 10). I had the distinct feeling this particular presentation of facts right off the bat meant that he equated his father’s increasing status with increased attractiveness (at least to women) and the gradual abandonment of his mother. If I may let my English degree take over for a minute, I might say that as his father’s wealth, fitness, longevity and sexuality increased, Charles’ perception of his father’s class was that he had moved into another class, a higher class, one of older men who take as mistresses younger women (like Anna Morgan, perhaps), while their families are left behind with the “ruins” of their middle-aged mother.

1:47 am: In response to his father’s ascension of classes, Charles appears to play off other peoples’ class, and rarely does he show his own. Not only does he tend to mimic peoples’ accents but rather scrupulously adjusts his speech and appearances to present himself as a social equal to whoever he meets. After his brother-in-law Norman (a secondhand appliance salesman) uses a phrase to which he misinterprets the meaning, he finds himself reeling, “Badly shaken by my fell-off-a-lorry slip the other day, I had just put down a book on Cockney slang” (pg 64). After he puts the book down, he ends up on an impromptu date with Rachel, his heretofore unmentioned love interest, and we see more of this tendency: “I had intended to buy a new LP, but didn’t, being as yet ignorant of Rachel’s tastes” (pg 65). But he also tempers his ever-changing apparent class with an omnipresent intent to seem literary and highly intelligent. This may be a defense of sorts for Charles, who seems to keep people at a distance, which has two desired effects: providing space and providing awe. In just his preparations for a date with Rachel he visits museums, writes out speeches, and researches Blake’s poems, about which he says, “I really quite liked Blake – and not just for the fucks he had got me, either” (pg 73).

2:33 am: Charles didn’t much like Dr. Knowd, the man who conducted his interview for Oxford. And indeed, why would he? Dr. Knowd dissected all of Charles’ entrance essays, pointing out his contradictions and inconsistencies. And it would seem Knowd might have guessed how Charles exploits literature and his understanding of it to manipulate other people, as he says, “Literature has a kind of life of its own, you know. You can’t just use it…ruthlessly, for your own ends” (pg 215). While Charles is accepted to Oxford he doesn’t feel any sort of exhilaration, or relief, or whatever one might expect, instead he thinks about the town to himself upon leaving, “Once you stop following the architectural lines upwards, then it’s just like anywhere else. But Oxford doesn’t think so; never known a place so full of itself” (pg 216). After Dr. Knowd’s harsh reprimand of his structuralist literary tendencies, Charles rejects the advice, instead choosing to see the university itself with scorn and anger. And indeed, this advice was more than just advice for enjoyment of poetry – it reflects Charles’ interactions with everyone he knows. He sees people as parts of genres, some more or less viable and worthwhile than others, but all are simply part of a larger whole, not as individuals with unique stories and backgrounds.

2:51 am: Charles had woken up, by now. I couldn’t help but like him a little more than I liked him before, mostly because I feel a little sorry for him. I’m still unsure how he felt about Rachel, but I think he loved her (or something like it), and he simply couldn’t get over himself and his classifications. He seemed to see his exams, Rachel, and his step into a new decade of life as rites of passage, meaningful only in that they carry meaning by being what they are, without experiencing them as unique and one-time events. Dr. Knowd’s advice to “[j]ust read the poems and work out whether you like them, and why” (pg 215…again) either escaped him or he refused it, as Charles rather callously discards Rachel in his hopes to ring in his birthday ceremoniously, saying, “I wished she would go. I couldn’t feel anything with her there. I wished she would go and let me mourn in peace” (pg 223). I don’t know what he meant to mourn, but I hoped he had in some way realized the wisdom in Knowd’s words and what he intended to mourn was the end of his childhood, and perhaps the end of his social structuralism. Either way, while he was passed out I stole his pen – which was full, and has written rather nicely, I’d say.



About andrewwhiting

A sentimental and sarcastic poet, lover of language, traveling and nature (not a fan of the Oxford comma).
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