Contemporary English lit contains two genres that are threatening to bore me to death. The first is the shocking, brand-new concept that divorce and dysfunction exist in the suburbs. For examples, see Little Children, Revolutionary Road, Mildred Pierce and The Ice Storm. American Beauty, while not a novel, also fits the bill.
The second is the wacky tale of an awkward young person. Coming-of-age, bildungsroman, whatever you want to call it — but with an inordinate amount of second-hand embarrassment. Usually this involves either a recent graduate with a first-time job or a University or High School student (usually a man, but occasionally a woman) who is just the most embarrassing, silly, clumsy, goofy and relateable person in the world. The plot surrounds one central mishap — or a series of smaller mishaps — that plays out like an episode of Frasier in which you know that the outcome will involve one or all of the supporting characters discovering something our protagonist did while being lovably awkward. The explanation is understandable if you were there, but creepy or terrible if you weren’t. Often our lead can’t talk his way out of it, but may still get the (or a) girl as a consolation prize.
David Nicholls’s work as a novelist specializes in the second of the two, but dabbled in the first for the putrid romance One Day. Having now read all three of Nicholls’ books — Starter for 10, One Day and The Understudy — I can’t help but feel that as entertaining as Nicholls’ writing can be, there’s something too safe and familiar about it.
Starter for 10 was probably the best of the three. That said, I could be biased because I loved the movie, which stars the not-yet-famous line-up of James McAvoy, Alice Eve, Rebecca Hall, Dominic Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch, also featuring Catherine Tate, Charles Dance and Mark Gatiss.
Starter is like a slightly older version of The View from Saturday, or even Mean Girls, with the combination of every day student life complicated by relationships and trivia competitions.
One Day was the absolute worst and provided a helpful reminder of why I usually stay away from kismet-heavy, clever romance stories. If you’ve seen it and liked it, I get it — but it wasn’t for me.
The Understudy, however, is somewhere between the two. What’s frustrating is that it’s very clever and very funny in places, but it still follows too closely the track of the tragic goof who bumbles his way through endless embarrassing and increasingly unrealistic scenarios. While all of the heavy-handed happenstances are grating, my real issue with the tragic goof is the implication that the lead is the only person who experiences any moments of embarrassment. All other characters are completely unforgiving of any clumsiness or absentmindedness, as though the protagonist is the only person in the world who’s ever made a mistake. There’s something incredibly self-centered and immature about this figure, who is clearly a stand-in for the author, and just as clearly secretly believes him or herself to be hilarious or talented or smart — no matter how much self-depreciating humor they dish out. I’d offer examples, but really you can just watch any Woody Allen movie.
There’s nothing wrong with reading a book that doesn’t break the mold or offer anything particularly new. It’s that anything from these two genres tries so hard to convince you of its fresh originality and its never-before-seen take on students, bored housewives or downtrodden professionals. Nicholls’s writing is witty enough to merit faith in his future endeavors, and I do hope that his next work will be a little less tragic goof and a little more… anything else. Though the success of One Day suggests it’s not likely.