Ben Masters is twenty-five, an Oxford grad in English and recently enrolled PhD student at Cambridge. He is also talented and clearly ambitious. What’s less clear is whether his debut, Noughties, was the best expression of this ambition. It bears mentioning that Masters is part of a relatively small roster at Hogarth, a Crown imprint devoted to exploring vital new literary voices. It’s a worthy undertaking, and has already yielded debut titles by Ryan McIlvain and Jay Caspian Kang, among others. In short, subsequent releases have a high bar to clear.
There’s energy aplenty in Masters’ debut, and a set of comfortingly familiar circumstances: a group of friends whose undergraduate careers are ending, saying farewell with one big night out. Our narrator Eliot wrestles with his attraction to Ella, a friend and part of the group, his past dalliance (unplanned hookup) with Abi, another friend and also part of the group, and his lingering feelings for his high school girlfriend, Lucy. This is all, naturally, quite taxing emotionally. That is to say, it’s true to the way in which a student in his early twenties might experience this conflict. It’s not particularly weighty or profound, however, for readers with more distance from and perspective on those experiences. Perhaps this is an unfair complaint. There’s no doubt an audience Noughties will thrill with this unfiltered immediacy. For a great many other readers, it will leave the nagging sense that it was declared ready a bit too soon.
Masters does buttonhole the reader from the outset, though. He opens with dialogue, a line which recurs as shorthand for inexpressible misfortune. He also invites the reader to the table by sharing his regret at having mentioned his ex, Lucy, so early in the proceedings. It’s a coolly executed gambit, which makes the appearance several pages later of first in a string of wholly unremarkable observations such a disappointment. The group poses for the first photos of the evening and we’re told that it’s “all pouts, grins, and carefully cultivated embraces. We’re pros at this stuff: the performance of a private life. Produced for all to have a gander, we make ourselves into mini-celebrities. We want everything to be known and we want to be bitten for it. But that’s just how it feels, right now, so early in the century.” The lag between lines like this being committed to the page and appearing between covers can’t have been long enough that it ever seemed fresh and revealing.
A mention of “the ignorant bliss of university life” has the feel more of received knowledge than firsthand observation. Eliot’s Oxford admissions interview, his reading of a poem before it in particular, seem too desperate to please, to push his irreverence to the fore. Yet there are moments when Masters lands an unexpected line, as when, at a loss in the interview, he throws out the term “militant irony” and confides to the reader that it was “a phrase I had heard one of my favorite authors use in interviews on Youtube.” Unfortunately, later discussion of music, much of it recorded before Eliot and company were even born, reads like opinions cribbed from Allmusic, but without attribution. Later, in the pub, “We move to another gunky pub-grub table. A portrait of Prince Charles hovers above us. Heritage.” He also nails the slim and complicated bond which grounds high school relationships as time passes, observing of himself and Lucy that despite the distance growing between them, “we have each other in common”, a link neither is willing to break yet. It’s all the more disappointing that several pages later, we get an analysis of love that seems cribbed from a self-help book: “Love isn’t realized in its telling though, in its endless repetition of three words, but in moments of doing, of happening.”
“I am a creature of both sensations and reflections and must make the record as I see fit. You see, I am in control,” Eliot tells us, while trying to fight down memories of Lucy. He is in control, intermittently, but at times he presses issues he’d be better served not to. His relationship with Lucy prompts several naked pleas of nostalgia. He “yearn[s] for return, dragged under by nostalgia’s fierce undertow.”Later, on a visit home, he notes that, “this kind of nostalgic return has never worked.” The dilemma is that he’s treating nostalgia with far less discernment than he claims in relation to love (see the aforementioned “love is” lines). Is instant nostalgia possible? It simply doesn’t feel honest in this case. His observation, upon returning to his building on the night at the heart of the novel, again demonstrates his lack of familiarity with real nostalgia. Here he’s impossibly glib and presumptuous: “the all-night porter clocks us. His watch blinks 3:30 a.m. at him. 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.” It’s possible this all grates a bit more for coming after a recent reading of Andre Aciman’s new novel, a writer who is a veritable poet of the nostalgic. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Noughties would be a better book, and a more memorable one, if cut by a quarter, or a third even, just pared down mercilessly.
Improbable as it may sound after so much complaint, Masters still finally works his will. The love triangle of Eliot, Ella and Jack carries the latter stages of the book, providing needed tension. Jules et Jim it’s not, but it is credible. The mechanics are sound, especially Eliot’s desperate efforts to keep Jack from finding out what happened with Ella. The night reaches a bittersweet finale, and the forward momentum balances out some of the previous missteps. This certainly won’t be the last we hear of Ben Masters, and rightfully so. Noughties is uneven, and it overreaches at times, but there is genuine talent here. The real shame is that it couldn’t come to us in five years’ time. Or ten. But I’ll be happy to catch up with his work then. I expect it will be worth the wait.