Noughties, by Ben Masters


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The Independent Culture

God knows, the mind of the average British undergraduate is a bewildering and bilious mixture of the high and the low, with gobbets of barely digested knowledge bobbing up against the vilest gutterings of the demotic. I think I would have taken Ben Masters' word for it on all of that, but here, in any case, is Noughties, his debut novel, laying out the awful, beer-soaked truth of student life.

There is admittedly some pertinence to the book's arriving just now. With the disastrous double-whammy of funding cuts and sky-rocketing fees, we are surely seeing the passing of an era, one in which, as Masters puts it, "Everyone goes to university; you just kind of end up there."

Noughties takes place over the last evening at Oxford for English scholar Elliot Lamb and his gaggle of friends, as they move – in the terse titles of the book's three sections – from Pub to Bar to Club, hazily navigating their shared sense of achievement, camaraderie, nostalgia and anxiety for the future.

Masters' prose has a certain swagger to it, as befits his characters; both they and it are equally intent on noticing, and on being noticed. The student wildlife in the King's Arms, for instance, takes in "meathead rugby players (cauliflower-eared, broccoli-beard, potato-reared)… bohemian Billies and Brionys, all scarves, hats and paisley skirts; indie chics and glam gloss chicks…" and so on.

But while current students may enjoy having their lingo and references immortalised on the page, the book is poor in more general literary pleasures. The basic narrative set-up has Elliot's increasingly wayward evening intercut with flashbacks from his student career (all coming in chronological order, helpfully enough), from interview to fresher’s week, to break-up with secondary school girlfriend to summer ball; the few instances of tension come from needlessly held-back revelations; the moments of real human drama (two of them, by my count) are whisked by in the hunt for the next supposedly comic riff. Supposedly, because the book, for all its frenetic stylings, didn't make me laugh once.

Perhaps Masters' worst misstep is his Author’s Note, which states: "This book contains numerous literary resonances, allusions, and quotations (mostly adapted and distorted), including: Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Matthew Arnold, Margaret Atwood…" Actually, no, the biggest misstep was their inclusion in the first place. A little less of the showboating nods-to-Martin might have given Masters the space to develop his narrative and characters, and work up some resonance of his own. Or perhaps the list is symptomatic of another feature of contemporary university life. Perhaps he was worried he'd be had up for plagiarism.

The book's most affecting moment comes at the end, when the gang of celebrants return to college in the early hours, stumbling past the night porter. "What I'd give to be young again, he's thinking. Don't do it, mate. It's not all it’s cracked up to be." On this showing, you'd have to agree, but it's the self-pity, not the angst, that puts you off.