Noughtie Oxford

Just before Christmas a few thousand people were getting letters and phone calls offering them their places at Oxford. They have the rest of the year to fully indulge in the fantasy of their lives to come. If they haven’t already, they will most likely read Brideshead Revisited. The slightly more adventurous will notice a few other books that traditionally pop up this kind of list: Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, Philip Larkin’s Jill, and the surprise winner of last autumn’s Blackwell’s poll, Dan Holloway’s The Company of Fellows.

With Noughties, Ben Masters has taken a shot at this list. What he certainly has not done is brought anything new to the genre. It’s hard to imagine that this novel would have flown with Penguin if the Oxbridge pedigree had not been able to accompany his handsome author photo on the back cover.

The plot of Noughties would serve to fill a few episodes of Hollyoaks. It has the anguish of the long-distance school-to-uni relationship; the drama of pregnancy, abortion, and suicide attempt; the guilt and adrenalin of romantic treachery and dancefloor hookups. Any of this might have avoided the banal in other hands. Instead, Noughties tries to cover the modesty of its narrative with the wet towel of literary allusion.

I could have compared the plot structure to Ulysses and the faux-nonchalant lingo to The Rachel Papers; I could have picked out the paraphrases of Ginsberg and Keats. But no need, for Masters helpfully provides an ‘author’s note’ at the end. ‘This book contains numerous literary resonances, allusions, and quotations (mostly adapted and distorted), including…’ Joyce, both the Amises, and all the rest.

In a way, the author’s note, in the ultimate ‘dick move’, threatens to put the book on a new level, its meta-textual playfulness, in the manner of Nabokov, undercutting the careful distinction between author and protagonist. Because Eliot Lamb, our antihero, is a prize knob. His louche punnery and self-besotted angst, his easy buy-in to each cheap snobbery, mark him as the justified target of every tabloid anti-Oxford sneer. It is clear that Masters knows this, and that he also knows that Eliot is himself. He has employed a useful and popular trick for the debut novel: write your worst self.

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There’s a therapeutic element to the technique. Get it all out. The characterisation of Eliot has all the self-consciousness that Eliot himself lacks. I’m almost surprised Masters didn’t list David Foster Wallace in his note. But this self-flagellating approach covers a multitude of grimy sins, too. Eliot’s world is hyper-stylised, more constricted than any actual Oxford bubble. His friends are more cardboard than even your own nerdy tute-partner or floppy-haired rah nemesis. You won’t find them here. But what is most horrifying about this book is the chance that, reading it, you might see yourself.