David Nicholls and the Sense of Irony

‘Is One Day the UK’s favourite book of the year?’ screamed one of the magazine headlines last year. It wasn’t exactly Harry Potter but One Day had its day in the sun. Rightfully so, many may wish to add. One Day is David Nicholls’ third book. His first, Starter for Ten is his funniest, and the second, The Understudy is the most autobiographical. The evolution seems quite organic; he must have gone for the laughs and dramatic effect to gain the attention of the publishing houses first and then decided to take a leaf out of his life. Afterwards, having tasted both literary and commercial success, he must have contentedly sat to write One Day.


There are two things one can clearly notice in his three works: the hard look at British life, and the sense of irony. For instance, in The Understudy, ‘Like  most people living in any great city, Stephen had a constant, nagging suspicion that everyone was having a much, much better time than he was.’

And ‘Stephen’s epic journey home involved the tube to Victoria, changing at Green Park, an overland train to Clapham Junction, then lurching ‘Hoppa’ bus and a brisk, nerve-jangling fifteen-minute walk, past Chicken Cottage, Chicken Village and World of Chicken-n-Ribs, then on to Idaho Fried Chicken, Idaho being the last remaining US State to be granted its own South London fried-chicken franchise.’

It is difficult to define whether the three books are feel-good. They are certainly not, in the sense of those Chicken Soup varieties, no pun intended. But there’s no way you can get past two pages in a row without having a laugh. The quality of these gags too kept improving from his first to the third but, true to the British manner, these gags arise through mere sense of irony. If David were to read or narrate these stories, he would almost certainly do it poker-faced. It is actually easy to miss them. David himself mentioned it in one of the interviews. On one occasion, he saw a woman reading One Day in the tube, and sat next to her to quietly observe her reaction. He noticed the page she was on and knew there was a funny line coming and waited for her to issue a chuckle. She finished the page, and without any expression, turned to the next one and continued reading.

His protagonists are not rich, successful people; and even those who become rich and successful squander their fame and fortune at the turns of life’s clanking wheels. The poor are not sympathetically approached either. The poor don’t envy the rich; they actually do but it is expressed in socialist contempt. They deride them as bourgeois whilst longing to become one of them. But they don’t tell you that. Often, David’s ironic humours emerge from these situations. In Starter for Ten, the working class Brian goes to his rich girlfriend’s house. ‘Alice walks on ahead with her arms looped around her dad’s neck, like he’s her boyfriend or something. If I put my arm around my mum’s neck like that she’d call social services.’

David’s characters actually make us understand the term ‘toe-curling’, because they behave in such embarrassing manner that our toe actually curls. We own their stupidity, gullibility, and desperation as our own whilst simultaneously laughing at these frailties. We urgently send them signals to not do the things they were about to do. And they carry on doing them regardless. We care for them, being acutely aware that such care wouldn’t help, because David wasn’t going to let up his characters. In the end, the characters’ search is not fame or fortune but some sense of calm. The term inner peace comes to mind but it’s a tad philosophical and also clichéd. It is plainly evident that David doesn’t care for such new-age idiocy. The characters search for some elusive clarity and find it in the end. What is this clarity is not very clear to them, nor is it to us but we find the same place that the characters find in the end. This clarity, the sense of calm, this ability to stop running and chasing something constantly, not in the spiritual sense but in the metaphysical, in an abstract consciousness, begin to make sense. That is what constitutes these books’ happy endings. They are not those manufactured endings of romantic comedies, because, there is no assurance that his characters will stop doing those stupid things they had done in the pages. That is perhaps why it might be difficult to satisfactorily reproduce his books to movies.

In Hollywood’s grim determination to massacre good books, two of his works have already been made into movies. It is best to stay as far away from these movie versions. Unless some Latin American or Iranian director makes an attempt, it is impossible to satisfactorily translate these emotions visually, especially their contented endings. Another difficult matter will be to convey the well formed sense of irony. In David’s poker-faced expression.