Noughties, by Ben Masters, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£12.99, 275 pages
Ben Masters’ lively debut novel Noughties is thick with allusions to popular culture and song. Amid the paragraphs of pastiche Martin Amis and Oscar Wilde are lyrics by Joe Strummer and Jarvis Cocker. Noughties is, among other things, a bittersweet hymn to the “ignorant bliss” and “entitlement” of student days. Masters finds lugubrious, philosophic humour in his own university past and in human ambition generally.
The novel unfolds over a drunken night in Oxford in 2005. Eliot Lamb, the narrator, has assembled his four best friends to celebrate their Finals and last day at university. Now at last they are ready to take on the real world. (“We are Judes who would not be consigned to obscurity”, Eliot jokes hopefully.)
But first they resolve to indulge in one last alcoholic bender at their favourite local. The night’s dissipation involves quantities of snakebite, Bacardi and Malibu, as well as Jägerbombs mixed with shots of Smirnoff Ice. Such hectic sousing can surely end only in disappointment, if not a paralytic stupor. Intoxicated and increasingly belligerent, the friends set off for a nightclub named Filth, where teenage sweat and aftershave taint the air. “This is the end, beautiful friend, the end”, Eliot proclaims tipsily, citing The Doors song.
The narrative is brocaded with flashbacks to Eliot’s childhood and bouts of hesitant sex with his then girlfriend Lucy. As a comprehensive schoolboy (a self-styled “snivelling statie”) he feels inadequate alongside Oxford’s public school fraternity. His satirical portraits of tweedy English dons and floppy-haired Etonians belie class envy as well as ill-concealed contempt. Classic British campus novels such as Lucky Jim and Porterhouse Blue concentrated on university staff; Noughties, by contrast, looks at the students and their sticky love lives. At the novel’s heart is Eliot’s tumultuous affair with Ella, a fellow English student, who inspires undying love but attempts to commit suicide following an abortion.
The sensuous immediacy of the writing and descriptions of Oxford pub food and bad sex are by turns funny and tender. Yet for all the talk of tutorials and high table, Noughties is less an Oxford novel than a semi-comic disquisition on the habits and aspirations of middle-class youth in Britain today. The novel crackles with Jamaican slang and hip-hop savvy reflections on music and race. Even among white Oxford students, a Jamaican inflection (“bruv”, “blud”) is considered hip. In the Filth nightclub, public schoolboys are seen to “act all urban in dance and attitude” as rap music shakes the floor.
The night’s booze-inflamed euphoria does not last long. Ejected by bouncers, Eliot and his mates set off in search of kebabs, having initiated a dancefloor brawl. From a kebab van (one of “those ubiquitous chariots of the student nightscape”) they order greasy chips and lamb: misery treads fast on the heels of joy.
Masters’ influences are diverse, borrowing from Joyce as well as the scurrilities of Restoration poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, (on whom Eliot writes an essay) to contrive a lewd, exaggerated prose. If his writing is overwrought (“We contort our faces into gruesome grandeur, gurning with eloquence and verve”), it has a compensatory energy and boisterousness.
Beneath the comedy is a serious intent. With the costs of higher education rising, the age of mass university attendance may be about to end. Eliot Lamb, his head filled with Renaissance poetry and structuralist theory, has no idea what to do with his life post-Oxford. In the repentant morning after the night before, he packs up his books and, accompanied by his parents, leaves. For all its mish-mash of literary styles and influences, Noughties is a caustic, street-smart novel for our times.
Ian Thomson’s ‘The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica’ (Faber) won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize