288 pp., Hamish Hamilton, £12.99.
As a novel shot through with intertextual references, Ben Masters’ first novel Noughties reminded me of two other literary debuts: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Gavin James Bower’s Dazed & Aroused. Like The Secret History, Noughties tells the story of a group of close-knit friends at university whose relationships are threatened by unresolved conflicts and mysteries. However, since the stakes for everyone involved in Noughties are clearly lower than the murder at the heart of The Secret History, Masters rightfully eschews the highly wrought narration of Tartt’s novel for a narrator whose conversational delivery mirrors that of the cynically self-aware male model in Bower’s. What all three novels also have in common is their transformation of biographical elements into fiction – Tartt’s time at Bennington College, Bower’s time as a male model, and Masters’ time reading English at Oxford.
On one level, Noughties functions as a love letter to the study of literature. To begin with, the name of its central protagonist, Eliot Lamb, is a not-so-disguised pun on T. S. Eliot and Charles Lamb, both of whom are listed in the 'Author’s Note' as being part of the ‘numerous literary resonances, allusions, and quotations (mostly adapted and distorted)’ threaded through the narrative. Thus the first-person narrator of this novel quite literally speaks through the voices of the dead. Masters appears particularly conscious of what Eliot wrote in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.’ As Masters remarks in an interview with Untitled Books, 'The writers I admire have a certain amount of literary swagger, they write with literary inheritance.'
Yet literary homage aside, Noughties actually tells a very straightforward coming-of-age story. It makes for enjoyable reading, even without needing to decode Masters’s literary references. Eliot is torn between Lucy, who represents the pull of Wellingborough and his pre-Oxford life, and Ella, whom he connects with at Oxford over their shared literary and musical tastes. This is complicated by Jack, his best mate at university, also being in love with Ella, which sets the stage for the best reveal of the novel about two-thirds of the way in, as Eliot, Ella and Jack are forced to confront the consequences of their romantic entanglements.
What makes this main strand of the novel’s plot compelling is the unorthodox method by which it is told. Even as the characters move through the three-act structure of a student night out—pub, bar, club—Eliot’s past unfolds in flashback and steadily catches up with him in the present. The fragmentary nature of this recollection, interrupted as it is by bouts of drinking, dancing and fighting in the present, bears out Eliot’s self-indictment of his generation near the end of the novel: ‘We are not an age kitted out for the telling of true love, hardwired for fripperies and drivel instead.’ Masters is also not afraid to break from the conventions of realism, as shown in the novel's more experimental moments where Eliot speaks with his psychic double, each half of the conversation flush to one side of the page.
The only criticism I have about Noughties is that, for a coming-of-age novel, its cast of characters is too sprawling. Partly because of the first-person narration that restricts access to the interiority of other characters, most of Eliot’s friends apart from Ella and Jack remain quite flat, seemingly there to round out the friendship group rather than contribute to the plot in any significant way. The Eliot/Ella/Jack triangle is possibly also overcomplicated by the end of the novel, with a faculty-student affair being hinted at that comes almost out of nowhere and seems a bit forced. Otherwise though, Masters’ debut novel proves itself to be a self-assured, entertaining read, Eliot’s experiences being the sort that a whole generation of current university students and recent graduates are likely to identify with.
Ian Chung is Fiction Editor at The Cadaverine. He is an MA in English student at the University of Warwick. His work has appeared in Angelic Dynamo, Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure, Foundling Review, Ink Sweat & Tears, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and The Cadaverine, among others. He was nominated by Camroc Press Review for Sundress Publications' 2010 Best of the Net anthology. Currently, he reviews for The Cadaverine, Sabotage Reviews and Rum & Reviews Magazine. He also edits Eunoia Review, and has recently joined Epicentre Magazine as Assistant Poetry Editor.