What has Ben Masters done for the Oxbridge novel?

Is 'Noughties' a fresh take on the genre, or just a pensioner in a hoodie?

Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator of Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), imagines that he is responsible for composing a list of subjects, scenes and structures which novelists are to be banned from using. He appeals for a prohibition on ‘more novels about incest…not even [excluding] ones in bad taste’, as well as a case-closed-consensus against ‘scenes in which carnal connection take place between man and woman in the shower’ (his reasons for the latter are ‘primarily aesthetic, but also medical’).

Geoffrey’s terms wouldn’t be too disruptive to novelists. Scrapping incest interludes and shower shagging oughtn’t to be too tight a clamp on plot-writing pulses. And any panic excited by Geoffrey’s proposal to cease staging novels in abattoirs would subside briskly enough -- especially after the news that God (‘bearded head gardener’; ‘wise old sea captain’) is also barred from fiction for twenty years. However, there is one item on the list flammable enough to cremate a paper palace of young novelists’ plans: by Geoffrey’s bell, book and candle, ‘novels set in Oxford or Cambridge’ are excommunicated from our bookshops.

The source of Barnes’ heckling is quite blatant. It might be mistaken as traditional for authors educated at Oxford and Cambridge to write growing-up tales of emotionally inelegant, hazily spiritual studentship. Compton MacKenzie’s Sinister Street (1914) set a tone for the hopeful, bathetic Oxford spirit. Max Beerbohn, author of the Oxford-set, suicide-strewn Zulieka Dobson (1911) praised MacKenzie for giving ‘the actual Oxford experience’, and ‘miraculously [making] you feel what each term was like’; a pattern up-ended in the sympathetic story of Philip Larkin’s Jill (1946), about the callow compulsion to lie in order to fit in a little better. Vladimir Nabokov’s Glory (1932) re-designs his own experience as a Russian exile at Cambridge (with a little less goal-keeping and, by all accounts, no fewer affairs), and Frederick Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes (1976) tracks the careers of a group of Cambridge graduates, whose trails are lit with the memories of irretrievable studenthood.

It would be amiss to neglect The Rachel Papers (1973), in which a precociously bright, precociously sexed Oxford candidate scrambles to sleep with an older woman before he touches twenty. The denouement of Martin Amis’s novel is the ‘arseless’ hero’s Oxford interview, in which his lordly exam papers are cauterized by a curly haired don.

Val McDermid said of her alma mater that ‘Oxford exerts a strong influence on those it touches’, yet there are audible pleas for that influence to be reined in a little. Somewhat bravely, therefore, Ben Masters, a recent Oxford graduate, published Noughties (2012). Set during the protagonist, Eliot’s, final night in Oxford, it writhes through memory and desire to achieve a familiar poignancy. But is it familiar enough to be spat out as an unwanted remake of a dusty recipe?

There are obvious reasons to celebrate this novel. Masters prioritises comic and fresh perceptions. Using images and metaphors to hop-scotch around reality, he describes the spot in which Eliot loses his virginity as an ‘embarrassed bed’, and his girlfriend’s inner thigh as ‘so exquisitively smooth and soft that it feels as if you’re about to slip off the earth’. He modulates his decoration carefully, and one trusts that his style will hulk and sweat into something exuberantly baroque -- an underappreciated prospect. Yet its critics have derided Noughties as an unambitious chip off the old block, with pouting self-pity standing in for affecting story-telling.

The novel does have a primitive structure and scope, and its supporting characters are not drawn with the cartoonish fluorescence which they (and we) crave. Yet this is part of the point. Masters introduces the group of friends as ‘four flat characters…Scott with his question-mark nose, Jack with his inverted-comma eyebrows, Sanjay with his square-bracket ears’. Completing their degrees has flattened them out like paper, and they are inscribed with marks of education -- metamorphosed, even, into the fundamental tools of the only trade they know. They are members of a culture in which ‘everyone goes to university; you just kind of end up there’ (Eliot imagines his friends from home studying ‘Golf Course Management with Experimental PE’ and ‘Socio-Bio-Dance with History’). In Noughties education has become so dispassionately arbitrary that it defines its characters, even physically, to the exclusion of anything else.

Take its epigraph: ‘but to the wise/ Often, often is it denied/ To be beautiful or good’ (W.H. Auden, Oxford). Eliot has learnt a lot about lashing and a lot about literature during university, but we wonder where he will go to learn compassion and kindness. And as for beauty, it brushes by their pub table only briefly. On the second page a ‘droopy man’ falters past them in the King’s Arms, who ‘wears the heady bonfires and dissident blossoms of the cool summer air, stirring fragrances of ale and tobacco’. This natural, softly pervasive beauty which many recognise in Oxford departs with its unlikely bearer. Masters sterilizes his novel of it. It returns only at the very end as Eliot drives away for the last time and sees the ‘shadows of many partings’; common, brief and quietly momentous occasions, crucial to many Oxbridge novels, glimpsed here only in shadow.

Masters is presenting an entirely different view. The novel’s vernacular (the students speak like Amis’s yobs) is important to this. Keith Talent could mingle indiscernibly among the and thats, innits and yeah mates of Eliot’s circle. This becomes especially grating beside passages like the florid tutorial on the place of the poet in The Prelude, in which few but humanities students could take much pleasure. This tension between the inarticulate and the over-articulate is dramatised when conversation between Eliot and his home friends turns to STIs. On hearing Rob’s account of having ‘a fob mathingy up [my] jap’s eye’, Eliot considers mentioning an episode in Herzog, maybe even Rochester’s ‘tingling cunts’, but checks himself (if following instances are consistent, for fear of puzzled gurns and accusations of hermaphrodidity.)

It is this disharmony which is both the novel’s problem and its purpose. Masters gives the Oxbridge formula a nastiness which it hasn’t really held before. It is not the absence of the old gentility, more the neutralisation of the pseudo-mythical quality of the sub-genre which one feels. The Auden quotation becomes an epitaph for the ‘beautiful and the good’ which, in the Oxford of Noughties at least, has been spray-painted over.

So what has Masters done for the Oxbridge novel? Little more than given a pensioner a hoodie and a snakebite and wheeled him into a nightclub? Or is his paradoxical, contorting account, uneasily street-smart and nervously high-brow, a closer representation of Oxbridge’s current condition? Perhaps, if the latter, its disjunctions have shaken up the bones of the elderly prototype, and produced a rejuvenation; perhaps, one of which Geoffrey Braithwaite, at a second glance, might be forgiving.

Oxford students in a display of camaraderie, 1935. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis