And anyway, compared to other qualities, like physical courage, or popularity, or good looks, or clear skin, or an active sex-life, just knowing a whole load of stuff isn’t actually that important. (p.4)
Brain Jackson is very good at knowing a whole load of stuff, and very bad at everything else. At the start of the book Brian is saying farewell to his make-no-good small town, and his childhood friends, before heading to university life. Good grades have got him into a good course, and he plans to work hard, not “become a wanker” and maybe, hopefully, be on the quiz show University Challenge.
Dad could be reduced to a white-faced rage by anything other than a short-back-and-sides on Top of the Pops but if you made it on University Challenge then you’d earned the right to any damned hair-do you wanted. (p.46)
Apart from the quiz show, Brain also wants a woman. He is not a virgin, it’s not pure sex he’s after. He has however seen the girl of his dreams. An attractive blonde.
She’s so perfect that I actually flinch when I see her. (p. 48)
So there’s an outlay of goals that Brian is without. A difficult target, and a lot of good dialogue. Nicholls has identified a variety of student life characters, jocks, nerds, self-obsessed, sheep, elites, boring people, Scots…
‘Waiting for you to call, obviously. Is this a date?’ she says, as if she were asking ‘is this a turd?’ (p.235)
And the honesty in dialogue and description, with life’s excuses, explanations, and mistakes, makes this funny and entertaining read.
Changing Status: As outlined, Brian has plenty of defects. He’s from a nothing town and has little success in social life. Yet he keeps trying and wants to be better than he his.
The Worst: Unfortunately the worst that can happen in often avoided. Brain gets into embarrassing and problematic situations that could be worse. He identifies fears of what the worst that can happen, though too frequently the worst is avoided by luck.
High Stakes: There’s no great loss to failure. Just disappointment.
Believable Characters: As said, Nicholls has nailled classic university characters. While the depictions could be cliché, they are usually removed from stereotypes by an insight into the personality, or some unique reality.
Time Pressure: Time is not pressured, though the reader knows the story can not drag on. The quiz show must be entered and competed. And gaps in Brian’s social events are left aside without disappointment.
Educate: Plenty of quiz questions. Though little learn from, other than how life was once, and what a good laugh from a book can be like.