Man about town

<strong>Twenty Something: the quarterlife crisis of Jack Lancaster</strong>

Iain Hollingshead <em>

If everyone has a novel inside him, logic dictates that an author is someone who manages to put it down on paper. This reasoning seems to have informed Iain Hollingshead's decision to write Twenty Something. So what kind of story lurks inside a middle-class boy in his mid-twenties who has flirted with life in the City and spent some time on the fringes of Tory politics? This is a book about just that, and in many ways it's an appealing idea: a modern tale of the peaks and troughs of life at work and at home, without difficult questions about marriage, retirement or death ever intruding; a story whose sense of morality is nothing more than that which informs the day-to-day life of a young man in London at the beginning of the new millennium.

Hollingshead tells his tale through almost daily diary entries for a single year, running from a bad New Year's Eve to a very good one. In the course of this period, the narrator, Jack Lancaster, gives up a well-paid job in an investment bank, gets drunk several times, commits a minor crime, breaks up with his girlfriend and finds another, loses a loved parent, grows closer to the other and finds happiness in a more fulfilling career. Unfortunately, he does all this without developing as a character. There are suggestions, as time passes, that he is coming to a better understanding of what will satisfy him in life, and at the end of the book he sends a text message telling everyone on his mobile that he "loves" them. But Hollingshead, possibly because his own character has not had much of a chance to develop, does not make Jack Lancaster grow up.

Still, Twenty Something is an enjoyable read, particularly for people familiar with the society about which Hollingshead writes. If you resist the temptation to slam the covers every time he slips from the present tense to the past for no reason, or you come across a line describing a girl as a "devilish filly", you can treat it as a clumsier version of Bridget Jones for young men, or Adrian Mole for the Naughty Noughties.

Whatever you think of the literary merits of those two creations, you have to admit that, by the time you finish one of their books, you understand their characters. Their voices inform every line; there is nothing in print that would not be in their minds. That is what has made them last. But Hollingshead has not pulled off the same trick: he wants his readers to sympathise with Jack, at the same time as wanting to make him representative of everyone he sees around him in London. It's too ambitious. And this is reflected in little inconsistencies: one moment we learn that Jack affectionately and secretly calls his parents Mummy and Daddy, the next he's referring in his diary to "my mum" and "my dad".

The novel begins well, providing small details - such as Jack's addiction to the BBC website - that reveal a bit about the man. But Hollingshead soon starts liberally sprinkling phrases such as "blah blah" about. No doubt these are intended to portray Lancaster's devil-may-care attitude, but they also suggest a lazy author.

When this book hits its stride, particularly in the passages about office life, it provides witty and insightful observations about present-day life in our capital. When it falls short, which it does all too frequently - especially during Jack's round-the-world travels - it feels like a bit of a rush job. Hollingshead should have grappled more with the demands of his first-person narrator, even at the expense of some of his jokes.

This article first appeared in the 15 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The worst man in the world?