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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Sean Spicer's Emmys love-in shows how little those with power fear Donald Trump

There's tolerance for Trump and his minions from those who have little to lose from his presidency.

He actually did it. Sean Spicer managed to fritter away any residual fondness anyone had for him (see here, as predicted), by not having the dignity to slip away quietly from public life and instead trying to write off his tenure under Trump as some big joke.

At yesterday’s Emmys, as a chaser to host Stephen Colbert’s jokes about Donald Trump, Sean Spicer rolled onto the stage on his SNL parody podium and declared, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period.” Get it? Because the former communications director lied about the Trump inauguration crowd being the largest in history? Hilarious! What is he like? You can’t take him anywhere without him dropping a lie about a grave political matter and insulting the gravity of the moment and the intelligence of the American people and the world. 

Celebs gasped when they saw him come out. The audience rolled in the aisles. I bet the organisers were thrilled. We got a real live enabler, folks!

It is a soul-crushing sign of the times that obvious things need to be constantly re-stated, but re-state them we must, as every day we wake up and another little bit of horror has been prettified with some TV make-up, or flattering glossy magazine profile lighting.

Spicer upheld Trump's lies and dissimulations for months. He repeatedly bullied journalists and promoted White House values of misogyny, racism, and unabashed dishonesty. The fact that he was clearly bad at his job and not slick enough to execute it with polished mendacity doesn't mean he didn't have a choice. Just because he was a joke doesn't mean he's funny.

And yet here we are. The pictures of Spicer's grotesque glee at the Emmy after-party suggested a person who actually can't quite believe it. His face has written upon it the relief and ecstasy of someone who has just realised that not only has he got away with it, he seems to have been rewarded for it.

And it doesn't stop there. The rehabilitation of Sean Spicer doesn't only get to be some high class clown, popping out of the wedding cake on a motorised podium delivering one liners. He also gets invited to Harvard to be a fellow. He gets intellectual gravitas and a social profile.

This isn’t just a moment we roll our eyes at and dismiss as Hollywood japes. Spicer’s celebration gives us a glimpse into post-Trump life. Prepare for not only utter impunity, but a fete.

We don’t even need to look as far as Spicer, Steve Bannon’s normalisation didn’t even wait until he left the White House. We were subjected to so many profiles and breathless fascinations with the dark lord that by the time he left, he was almost banal. Just your run of the mill bar room bore white supremacist who is on talk show Charlie Rose and already hitting the lucrative speaker’s circuit.

You can almost understand and resign yourself to Harvard’s courting of Spicer; it is after all, the seat of the establishment, where this year’s freshman intake is one third legacy, and where Jared Kushner literally paid to play, but Hollywood? The liberal progressive Hollywood that took against Trump from the start? There is something more sinister, more revealing going here. 

The truth is, despite the pearl clutching, there is a great deal of relative tolerance for Trump because power resides in the hands of those who have little to lose from a Trump presidency. There are not enough who are genuinely threatened by him – women, people of colour, immigrants, populating the halls of decision making, to bring the requisite and proportional sense of anger that would have been in the room when the suggestion to “hear me out, Sean Spicer, on SNL’s motorised podium” was made.

Stephen Colbert is woke enough to make a joke at Bill Maher’s use of the N-word, but not so much that he refused to share a stage with Spicer, who worked at the white supremacy head office.

This is the performative half-wokeness of the enablers who smugly have the optics of political correctness down, but never really internalised its values. The awkward knot at the heart of the Trump calamity is that of casual liberal complicity. The elephant in the room is the fact that the country is a most imperfect democracy, where people voted for Trump but the skew of power and capital in society, towards the male and the white and the immune, elevated him to the candidacy in the first place.

Yes he had the money, but throw in some star quality and a bit of novelty, and you’re all set. In a way what really is working against Hillary Clinton’s book tour, where some are constantly asking that she just go away, is that she’s old hat and kind of boring in a world where attention spans are the length of another ridiculous Trump tweet.

Preaching the merits of competence and centrism in a pantsuit? Yawn. You’re competing for attention with a White House that is a revolving door of volatile man-children. Trump just retweeted a video mock up where he knocks you over with a golf ball, Hillary. What have you got to say about that? Bet you haven’t got a nifty Vaclav Havel quote to cover this political badinage.

This is how Trump continues to hold the political culture of the country hostage, by being ultra-present and yet also totally irrelevant to the more prosaic business of nation building. It is a hack that goes to the heart of, as Hillary's new book puts it, What Happened.

The Trump phenomenon is hardwired into the American DNA. Once your name becomes recognisable you’re a Name. Once you’ve done a thing you are a Thing. It doesn’t matter what you’re known for or what you’ve done.

It is the utter complacency of the establishment and its pathetic default setting that is in thrall to any mediocre male who, down to a combination of privilege and happenstance, ended up with some media profile. That is the currency that got Trump into the White House, and it is the currency that will keep him there. As Spicer’s Emmy celebration proves, What Happened is still happening.