The Short Version: It’s the last night of uni for Eliot Lamb and his friends. Tomorrow, they all set off for the real world, a place that seems confusing and strange compared to the Oxford halls they’ve shared for the last three years – but tonight, they’re gonna have a good one, right? Pub, bar, club – and a whole lot of revelations along the way.
The Review: This is the sort of novel that appeals to a very distinct subset of readers. You can’t even just call it a university novel, because it’s a particular type of university student who’ll read it and be able to dig it. You’ve gotta understand England a little bit – otherwise, all the slang will probably cause confusion (I see you, Goodreads reviewers). You’ve gotta understand drinking – there’s a lot of it. Are you a millennial? Or ‘noughtie’, as the phrase goes? If not, you might be bamboozled by some of the hyperactive existential questioning that runs rampant among my cohort.
Still interested? Then find a single night where you can have a drink or two and read this novel in a single go. That’s the best way to take it and not just because it’s set over the course of a single night. There’s something immediate about the book, something that fades a bit even as you wake up the next morning – like the dizzy memories of a night out that, at the time, probably felt pretty good but now feels a little suspect at best. I remember my last night at school – we saw the LOST finale, drank way too much, wandered around campus, cried, laughed, saw the sun come up over the misty fields to the east, and then staggered into a hot and boring graduation ceremony. But there was enough drama in that night for me to write a novel, I guarantee it. Most people, I’d wager, could wring a novel (or at least a novella) out of their own last-night at school – so what makes this interesting?
The answer, of course – the crux of the whole thing, in every situation – is our main character. And he is the most typical twentysomething fuck-up, which is to say that he is simultaneously immensely interesting and completely aggravating. He might only be the former because, well, I see myself in him. It’s the same thing with the Nathaniel P. effect – you both do and don’t want to see yourself in this character. Eliot even recognizes it to some extent, when he is talking about his (ex-)girlfriend Lucy, in one of many memory-digressions, and how he saw himself being an asshole and yet it happened anyway. The jealousy, the confusion, the sheer idiocy of youth that at the time feels like the most important and only thing in the world. Hell, I still don’t think I’ve grown out of it – I don’t know many friends who have. Maybe we don’t, we noughties.
The structure of the novel is a winking descent into hell – one of the many, many winking literary asides here, as Eliot is an English Lit major. Amis pere and fils are the immediate and obvious stylistic influences, many of the canonically classic novelists are name-dropped, and there are probably even a ton of references I don’t get. This is a novel written by a guy who grew up having to mine his novels for the most ridiculous ‘themes’ and ‘ideas’ and all that bullshit in order to convince teachers who’ve heard the same things for years upon years that he’s deserving of a good grade in order to go forth and… do… something…. As a result, he’s written a novel that’s full of that synthesis. It’s actually kind of remarkable – in a way, you could say that the whole academic system works if this is what our English majors might be capable of.
At the same time, the novel is completely self-centered, with few of the aspirations towards the greater issues of the day or any of that rot. Eliot’s relationships – specifically the one with his ex-girlfriend Lucy and the one with his best-friend-slash-dreamy-dreamgirl Ella – are the driving force of this novel, the bro-y relationship with his best friends (from home and at school) coming in a close second. And Masters’ biggest success comes not from the stylistic acrobatics he indulges in (which are fun but, you know, whatever) but rather from the way in which he captures the enduring mysteries of the way we interact with people. A big thought, I know – but it’s true. We get the sense not that Eliot is unreliable but rather that he’s building up his courage to tell us certain things. In the early pages, he talks about having certain things he needs to confront – a buzzing phone in his pocket, his feelings for Ella – but there’s no sense that he’s hiding them. He just needs to drink enough to be able to talk about them. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? And the unspoken answer to the final series of revelations at the end of the novel – obvious to anyone who has been paying attention, but escaping our drunken hero – is absolutely crushing and heart-wrenching. The things we do to one another… adults, too. It’ll send an icy twist into your stomach, like that extra shot you probably shouldn’t’ve done.
Rating: 4 out of 5. People who hate Martin Amis and his overblown contemporary writers will find a ton to hate in this novel – and I think, had I read it as an adult, I might’ve liked it quite a bit less. But I’m 25. The heartbreaks and missed-chances and drunken misadventures of my college days are still pretty fresh in my mind – fresher, in many ways, than the same things that happen in the real world. Because when you’re all trapped together for a couple of years like that, it’s bound to feel more real than anything out in this more disparate ‘real world’. Masters’ novel made me feel. It caught something intangible inside of me and, for the few hours it took to read over the course of a rainy night over a scotch or two, it’s like I was there. Eliot and I, we might be pretty different – but we share a commonality of experience that makes us brothers. Just like my real college brothers.