08 April, 2012

Ben Master's Noughties and the problems for young novelists.

'Noughties' is as fresh and modern as a novel - with its lengthy lead time - is likely to be. Ben Masters' debut novel is current, interesting and a remarkably refreshing book - it's not perfect by any means, but it's a start, and a clever, perceptive and funny one at that.

I found this book in the Fiction shelves of a Foyles branch and it had something of the 'self-published' look about it. Upon closer inspection, it's published by the Penguin group, but there is something new and makeshift about the whole project. Despite young and debut novelists having a tough time of it, 'Noughties' ended up as part of a bidding war, but why? Masters is a fresh-faced graduate; he writes about what he knows - literature, university and drinking - and another draw is that, for me, he's a local lad. I've been reading many university and campus novels recently - Larkin's Jill, Amis' Lucky Jim, David Lodge - and I thought: why not add another to the pile?

The novel follows Eliot Lamb, a Wellingborough lad's forays into the world of Oxford, tearing himself away from the connections to his home life. The way Masters views the world - through a kaleidoscope of literature and performance - is clear from the first pages of 'Noughties'. It is clear that he is expressing, through the multiple use of loose references to great works of literature, that he is reflecting not just Eliot's occupation as English student, but also his own perception of the world. Masters makes many clever points about the modern night out as performance - performance to your friends, strangers, yourself, and a performance for social networking. The book comes across as a melancholic celebration of the modern 'night out', highlighting its brilliance and its flaws.

The novel's language use is very topical, and the sort of language bandied about in the pub/club/bar. It is surprising to see such a representation of today's words in a novel - normally only in television (and arguably film) is this apparent. Masters experiments somewhat with the position of the words on the page, adding a lyrical and experimental tone to the book. What Masters achieves (and not consistently - the book is not a comedy by any means) is a natural lightheartedness which at times had me laughing out loud. There is an understated tone to the humour, and an irony which is rife amongst 'youth'.

Now what really sets the book apart, and adds to Master's unique representation of university life and culture, is the book's structure. The three chapters - Pub, Bar, Club - reflect the structure of the night out itself, but also do more than that. The book's three-part structure mimics that of a degree, and in the same way that Eliot flashes back to important parts of his university experience, Masters comments on the way we try to immortalize, and send off, periods of our life in one night, but these tend to be anticlimactic culminations of separate events. It is impossible to escape the baggage we all have, and as such, any big night out will bring these cracks in a friendship group to the forefront. The book reminded me of a kind of prequel to One Day, in the way that Nicholls looks to the future and follows progress, Masters attempts to immortalize one snapshot, of one year, and show how the characters got there, without attempting to theorize about the group's future.

Masters is certainly a promising new talent, and whilst the book has some flaws - its quite lengthy at times and has some inconsistencies in tone - it is a refreshing and 'new' novelist to tackle such a topic. This is the kind of exciting new talent we and publishers should be pushing for. Reading this Guardian article, on how publishers work on talent, to get their great later work on their third or fourth novel, and it is a shame to think that this is a practice that is dying out. Well done Masters - you've proved why young authors deserve a chance.

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