Reviewed by Victoria
Confidence has to be one of the funniest novels that I’ve read this year. It’s a welcome return to the campus novel but so fresh and contemporary in feel that you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve just spent a term at uni by the time you come to the end of it. It’s told from the student’s perspective and interspersed with non-fictional passages that tell the story of Nietzsche’s philosophy of confidence, which reflect on the fictional action. This is of course quite perfect – never again do we feel quite so reliant on confidence (or misplaced confidence) to get us through as in that era of our early 20s, when a person is independent for the first time and totally clueless. ‘Confidence, in a strange way, is acting without thought,’ the narrator suggests to us. Whereas lack of confidence is ‘the feeling you get when you turn up to some event and you become aware that you don’t feel as good as you expected to. You’re not funny or lively; you’re dull and at the same time, edgy. You can’t get comfortable.’ And so in essence, ‘I call the adjacent opposite of confidence: self-consciousness.’ This excellent insight will hover over the fates of the characters for the rest of the narrative.
The story is told from two perspectives: Ellie and Charlie, both finalists at the same university. Ellie is attempting and failing to write a dissertation on Nietzsche, but the prospect of 15,000 words with no plan and no real idea what she is saying leaves her absolutely stymied. Ellie lives with Rosie, who is fading away from anorexia, and is dating Justin, a typical nice guy who has already changed courses twice without finding any subject that’s really to his taste: ‘He was utterly unsuited to uni, but there was no escape; it was middle-class military service.’ However, nice guys don’t quite cut it with Ellie, who is deeply into her phase of self-destructiveness and seeking constant distraction from herself if not total oblivion. Eventually distraction comes in the form of her politically-astute friend, Nadine, who encourages her to follow up on a social media rant about sexism at university that goes viral. If ever there was a good time to put a university career at risk due to political protest, the last term before finals definitely is not that time. But why should that stop Ellie?
Charlie is similarly disengaged from his subject and the king of procrastination, despite his cherished ideal of becoming an entrepreneur after graduation. When the novel begins he is splitting up from his long-term girlfriend, Sara. In essence this is a good decision; he doesn’t love her, is even bored by her. But Sara is a motivated, organized, assiduous kind of young woman. She has been organizing Charlie’s life for him and Charlie has been happy to go with the flow. Once released from her slipstream, he is left adrift and purposeless, hypnotically drawn to hanging out with the ‘Ladz’, whose vileness reaches legendary proportions in the novel:
‘Charlie wasn’t even a level-one lad. He didn’t want to be. It was unpleasant, painful and degrading. That was why he didn’t live with these guys: then he’d be Ben, who last term was kidnapped by twenty masked men, tied up, thrown in a book and driven to Durham to be ‘the gimp’ on rugby tour. The ladz were awful and stupid, yet despite that Charlie couldn’t help being drawn to them. There was something epic about them, something fearless and undeniable: they went beyond thinking, beyond dignity, beyond social convention, beyond the constraints of self… They were living for the moment, making the most of their time at uni. Yes, it might be horrendous, but you’d never forget the experience.’
I found it really intriguing to note the new gender boundaries being drawn up in this account of independent but floundering youth. Women are confused about their sexuality, diffident about commitment, and certainly no longer the ones to drive and orient relationships. Now men are the more romantic and needy of the sexes, though it’s often revealed as an emptiness of self, a lack of direction. Confidence is also a pretty damning account of how university can destroy someone’s interest in education – if that hasn’t been done already by the schooling that preceded it. Charlie and Ellie are both casualties of university life, left drifting and ungrounded by it, and as a former lecturer at university as well as a study support tutor, I can certainly attest to the veracity of this novel. You might feel like knocking Ellie’s and Charlie’s heads together, but you will recognise them as people you know.
So this is a hilarious novel, but also a serious one. The bold moves that Ellie and Charlie take to give themselves the appearance or the spirit of confidence are equally the thoughtless, overinflated demands of their beleaguered egos. This is such a well-observed novel, with some truly brilliant extended metaphors that really capture the experience of being young, confused and under pressure. For instance, Charlie takes an unwanted call from his ex, Sara:
‘Charlie’s twenty-four-hour comfort line obeyed one simple rule: never initiate, always respond. It was a new service he was providing: victim support. (In this case the victim was supported by the criminal, but it didn’t affect the quality of care.)’
And on top of all that, it’s an excellent mini masterclass in Nietschean philosophy. If you ever loved David Lodge’s novels then do give Confidence a try. It’s fascinating to see how much times have changed.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Read Victoria’s Q&A with the authors in our BookBuzz section here.
Rowland Manthorpe and Kirstin Smith, Confidence (Bloomsbury: August 2016) 978-1408802540, paperback original, 320 pp.
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