Ben Masters’s “Noughties”

Ben Masters's "Noughties"There’s nothing remarkable about Oxford student Eliot Lamb. And that’s good. We’re not dealing with anyone remarkable here, nor do we really want to; Ben Masters has written a book that shows us our post-college, pre-settled selves, whether we studied literary criticism or criticized the very idea of it. And while I didn’t personally have any of the dramatic experiences that bring Noughties to its climax, that university drama is simply a means to show us the ways in which our time at uni can help us grow, or not change us much at all – but especially how we prefer to think of ourselves significantly altered either way. Masters has, in this eccentric novel, expertly captured the desperation of assigning meaning to this Finality of Adolescence, as Eliot Lamb and his crew (Scott, Jack, Sanjay, Megan, Abi, and Ella) squirm at the thought of legitimate, unsheltered adulthood. The final evening they spend together at Oxford encapsulates the obligation to enjoy themselves far more than actually doing so, and the echoes of “let’s just have a good night, yeah?” are the book’s never-answered refrain.

Another unanswered refrain: the torrent of ignored phone calls and text messages Eliot keeps receiving from his ex-girlfriend Lucy, who can only have bad news if her contact is this insistent.

Noughties is a thorough retrospective, a definitive anthology of Eliot’s time at Oxford, and the way the timeline jumps from past to present to past, sometimes within paragraphs, keeps the story feeling like a genuine investigation of Eliot’s sense of self, now at the end of the familiar and the beginning of something new. Since that frame works so well for the purposes of the story, there are other swaths of text that I found myself merely skimming. For example, there is a batch of commentary on the way we spend so much time and technology “performing” for our friends in the 21st century, and this commentary is rendered entirely in text-speak:

“I number-eight this song,” snarls Jack, without looking up from his phone.
“Lower-case-y?” I ask.
“It’s number-two repetitive.”
“What lower-case r lower-case u talking about?” interjects Abi.

Then there’s the part where Eliot’s frustration with his poor decisions is rendered as a two-page cover letter for a future job application:

I have significant and diverse experience in fucking things up. During my time at Oxford University, where I have recently completed a BA in Fucking Things Up, I have been able to fuck things up to a very high standard through my unwavering hard work and dedication, while still managing to consistently fuck up academically.

Since Eliot’s narration is already so punchily idiosyncratic on its own (he is a 21-year-old in 2012, after all), passages like these are mildly entertaining, but kind of annoying in their uselessness to the story.

Then, on the contrary, there are passages that are so deft because they are never touched on again, much like the emotions in any seven-adolescent landscape would be. Their friend Abi discreetly regretting her time as the campus skank, Jack’s momentary faraway broodings, Sanjay’s desperate and secret love for Megan, and most ominous of all, Ella’s sudden, unexplained avoidance of Professor Dylan Fletcher. These peeks into the other characters, like the jumpy timeframe, are spot-on enactments of how we really can’t know everything about anyone but ourselves – just one more contributing factor to young adulthood’s struggle with me-centrism.

And if we’re mad as hell at Eliot, if we think he’s acting like a total tool – which I spend most of the book thinking – it’s made worse by the fact that he sees it himself, too, and doesn’t know how to put the kibosh on his own stupidity. If we’re frustrated with him (and we are), it’s precisely because we have been on the delivering or receiving end of the same behaviors and actions. Not knowing any better, or having no frame of reference, Eliot treats his first girlfriend and “true love,” Lucy, like crap under his shoe. Not knowing any better, Lucy allows it. There are silences where there should be conversations, and a hell of a lot of the reverse, too.

Then there are moments that make you cringe, and I mean literally, as you hold the book, and they’re the decisions real people have no doubt made: desperate midnight gambits to win back who they think they deserve, drunken soliloquies about the meaning of love, wallowing self-pity on display at the pub, etc. It’s all stuff I hope Masters hasn’t been on the head or tail end of, but of course he must have been. We all have been.

Hence the desperation to just “have a good night, yeah?” Everyone trying to prove they can be better than they’ve been, and none more so than Eliot Lamb. Whether or not they are any better is the investigation throughout Noughties, and so authentically rendered, it’s enough to make you hope so, for all our sakes.

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