Naturally, I have yet to finish any of the books I brought/ started on my trip to London (which was wonderful, thanks Hay!). But, of course, as I passed the time in a bookstore in Heathrow waiting for my flight to depart for home, I decided to add another book to my heavy backpack – Starter for Ten. I saw the movie when it first came out, though I remember almost nothing of it, and I have friends who loved the book (which is also, oddly, sometimes called A Question of Attraction). Because of all this, and because I had vaguely been meaning to read it for a while and had recently been talking about it, I gave it a try.
I read the majority of this book in public places – the plane from London and on the subway coming to and from work each day this past week. Not a good idea. I got so invested in the main character, the supremely awkward Kate Bush-fanatic Brian Jackson, that I would catch myself scowling at what he was about to do or, more often than not, laughing out loud at his awkwardness (often to the curious looks of my fellow commuters). It is a hilarious book. Brian, a young man from a working class English town in the mid 1980s, enters college with dreams of finding a great girl, becoming cool and aloof, and starring on his college’s University Challenge (a TV quiz show) team. As an avid collector of useless facts and general knowledge, Brian has always believed that being on a University Challenge team would somehow bring everything together: he would find the beautiful smart girl, make his mother proud, honor his dead father, and succeed beyond his humble upbringing. Of course, all does not go according to plan. As he becomes distracted by his blind love for the beautiful but selfish and mean Alice, he neglects his studies and slowly isolates himself from everything and everyone that is important to him. It becomes a story that would be sad if it weren’t so funny.
As a recent college student and English major to boot, I have encountered very few characters in books that have been as recognizable as Brian Jackson. Time period, class warfare, and general ridiculousness aside, his thoughts and insecurities are the kind that most kids in their late teens and early twenties are plagued by. Brian desperately tries to fit in and find his place at his university, but continually fails at his attempts to be cool and aloof while overanalyzing every conversation he has with people he is trying to impress. It is the perfect picture of freshman year of college: insecurities about new friends, academic qualifications, leaving home, and the opposite sex. So often when reading Brian’s thoughts I wanted to yell, Yes! That’s exactly how I felt! So much of what Brian does, from the way he makes up conversations and encounters in his head, to the way he applies literature and song lyrics to his life, to the way that no matter how hard he tries he is unable to avoid superb awkwardness, are things that I (and many of my friends) have definitely been known to do. It’s amazing how Nicholls so often knew what was going on in my head as a young and impressionable college student. But Nicholls knows how to make Brian not too recognizable – some of his situations are just so absurd and painfully awkward that he always remains a comfortably safe work of fiction. The recognizability that remains, however, is what makes the book so funny and still so poignant.
Each chapter of Starter for Ten is preceded by a University Challenge-esque question that shows itself to be pertinent to the chapter. Likewise, each of the four parts of the book (or ‘Rounds’) begins with a quote that becomes relevant. The epilogue begins with this quote from a Kate Bush song I love, ‘Cloudbusting’:
I know that something good is going to happen.
And I don’t know when,
But just saying it could even make it happen.
And so, in honor of Brian and his love for Kate Bush, here is the wonderful (/ridiculous) video for Kate Bush’s wonderful song 'Cloudbusting.' Enjoy!