In Praise of the Social

Joseph Darlington – Quiz Night (No-Name Press, 2020)

I did a pub quiz once but when I saw that my meagre contribution wasn’t going to help lead the team I was on to victory I never bothered again. For some reason I’d been convinced I’d be brilliant, paraded around the pub on the shoulders of my teammates after our triumph, acclaimed as the Maradona of the quizzing world etc etc… The disappointment attendant upon the realisation that this was unlikely ever to happen forced me to take the view that pub quizzes probably weren’t for me. Now, this isn’t a memory that has particularly stayed with me but this past week, while reading Joe Darlington’s new novel Quiz Night I have had cause to revisit my brief career as a pub quizzer. 

Yep, I wanted my team to win, of course I did, but I think I probably only wanted them to win off the back of the outstanding individual performance I proved myself so unable to provide that unmomentous evening. Which I guess is just me saying I’m probably not that much of a team-player and thereby proving the lie to all those job applications over the years (sorry to any employers who might have fallen for that lie). In my case (and what is this, btw, a book-review or a personal confession???) I think my issue with quizzes is something to do with the element of competition, which is to say, I think I dislike being in a competitive arena when it’s more than likely I’m not gonna come first. Get rid of the quiz element from pub quizzes, then, I suppose, and I’d be as happy as anything. 

All of which might lead one to suppose I might not constitute the most natural audience for a novel called Quiz Night but, here’s the thing – while, yes, there is a quiz in the book, which I’ll talk more about later – for me, though, Darlington’s novel is mainly about hanging-out with people, being amongst friends. Across the few nights I spent reading the novel, when I was away from it I would find myself actually missing the characters: Nick, Blain, Amy, Naomi and Rach. I would find my concentration wandering from whichever telly programme we were watching back towards these folk who I’d only so recently become acquainted with, impatient for the next opportunity I’d have to put myself back in their company. The night I started reading it I even struggled to fall asleep coz I was buzzing so much after time spent with these characters. And this is one hell of an achievement I think. Of course, all fiction writers should be aiming to populate their works with memorable, life-like characters, but, really, how often is this achieved? The occasions when I’ve encounter it in a novel have been quite infrequent I think, sadly.

A note at the beginning of Quiz Night explains that the novel was written during 2020’s coronavirus lockdown and, as much as is possible given the speed that current times have tended to change, Quiz Night does feel like the perfect work for this strange moment we’ve all been living through. Rather than going the oh too predictable way of showing us what we’ve got though – or I guess more accurately what we had (there goes the velocity of change again…) – in other words deserted streets and rising levels of fear and anxiety, Darlington, instead, opts to show us what we’ve no longer got and what I, and I suspect a hell of a lot of other people, so desperately miss, company and camaraderie. The social. Interestingly however, in this novel, the diagnosis and the cure, to me at least, seemed almost to be the same thing. By showing us so skilfully and satisfyingly what we’ve not got I felt that at least some of my own needs for the social had been met. So much did this feel to me the case that after finishing Quiz Night I found myself wishing I’d read a copy of it much earlier, it seemed to me it’s effects would have made this latest lockdown much, much easier to bear.

Alongside the vivid and lively hymn to friendship we get, as well, Darlington’s thoughts on the nature of knowledge. These ruminations provide a constant thread running throughout the book and as just one example of this on Page 165 we find:

“But how will you know if it’s right or not, if you don’t know yourself?” Naomi asked.

Normally such a question could only provoke either the most banal or the most profound answer. The most banal being “Google”. The most profound addressing the very nature of what it is to know, and how one enters a state of knowing, and whether one could possess knowledge as a supplement when the possessor does not actively know in-themselves. 

It’s these sections which provide the philosophical heart of the book and in a fantastic example of interactivity Darlington allows the reader space in the text not just to think about these conundrums but also to try to figure them out practically by pitting themselves against the same quiz questions that the characters are facing. Darlington even provides an answers sheet at the back of the book.

And although I didn’t complete the quiz (partly due to the reasons indicated at the beginning of this review, partly due to the fact that I’m not a big fan of writing in books) I thought Quiz Night’s interactive element was a great idea. It reminded me of the Choose-your-adventure books of my youth, which I was a massive fan of…but it also seemed to me that Darlington had provided a means to ensure that everyone’s experience of his book would be slightly different due to the differing frames of reference people would be drawing on in order to try to answer the questions, so in a sense then Darlington could be said to have written a book which is perpetually rewriting itself – no mean feat.

Since finishing Quiz Night I’ve been wondering if part of the reason it landed so positively with me was because there was a level of recognition, and here I don’t mean the specific characters of the quizzers but, rather, the locations. I’m a big fan of local, Manchester-based literature and here, with Quiz Night, we have another great entry into that canon. Reading the description of the pub in the opening pages I felt sure I knew which one Darlington was talking about… And isn’t there always some weird magic which occurs when you see a place you know on TV or, as is the case here, portrayed in fiction (as an aside, what is that all about exactly: there can be a street you’ve walked down every day of your life for the past 10 years without ever giving it a second thought but when you unexpectedly see it on the local news it’s suddenly been transformed into the most exciting location on earth!).

Also, since finishing the book, I’ve been wondering what happened next for the characters. Some of them were facing some pretty big life changes and I would absolutely love to know how they got on with those. I’ve also been thinking that perhaps when lockdown finally is over I might even give pub quizzes another chance. That’s far from certain but you never know. Always say you never know. Unless, of course you do know. In which case write the answer down quickly and ignore all self-doubt, and whatever you do definitely, definitely don’t go and change your answer at the last minute.

Richard Barrett

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