Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Submarine - Joe Dunthorne

Read: January 2009

in one tweet sized chunk:

Very funny, irreverent, caustic, and smart, Submarine announces the arrival of a talented young comic author.

I've decided that I'm not going to write a diary. It puts my reputation in danger. I'm going to keep a 'log'. It's going to be seriously buff: there will be no emotions; there will be no emoticons; it will be sprayed with bullet points like the wings of the Luftwaffe after the Vickers K machine gun was introduced.”

was first brought to my attention because my friend Megan Bradbury is listed in the acknowledgements section at the back. She studied with Joe Dunthorne on the same M.A. in Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia where much of Submarine was written and for which he was awarded the Curtis Brown scholarship. A couple of years later, when Submarine had been published to much critical acclaim, Joe agreed to come and do a reading as part of UEA Loves Books where he regaled a not particularly full graduate bar with a passage of explicit prose which made any latecomers blush and leave as quickly as possible. Because of all this, I have an affinity for Joe Dunthorne which has nothing to do with the contents of this book.

However, it is the book which I am here to talk about so here we go. In that direction we now head. Oliver Tate is fifteen, living in Swansea, and trying desperately to live up to as many teenage stereotypes as humanly possible. He is highly sexed, self-involved, capricious, convinced he must be a genius, and utterly derisive of the intricacies of other people. His mind is awash with pornography, long words, his parents marital problems, school, exams, and capoeira (no, I didn’t know what it was either, but apparently it is an Afro-Brazilian martial art form of meditative dance). He is more Adrian Mole than Holden Caulfield, though Adrian Mole with attitude and disdain for the twee uncertainties which plagued the adolescence of Mr. Mole. He studies the dictionary and litters his writing with words like fastigium and apotheosis.

It is all very very funny. I read the first fifty pages in a rush, barely pausing to breathe in-between bouts of hysterical laughter. Oliver’s mind jumps from subject to subject like a grasshopper jumping between leaves. I have not laughed so hard at any work of fiction since Catch-22. Dunthorne does a fantastic job of crafting the dysfunctional Oliver, imbuing him with all the misconceptions of an unreliable narrator. His actions are caustic, at times you want to reach into the book and give him a good hard slap. When he begins to date a pyromaniac named Jordana you hope that he will settle down, but if anything his behaviour becomes even more erratic.
Oliver is a caricature of a person we have all feared we once were, even if it was only for a short period in our adolescence. He has good intentions (often) but (even more often) they backfire, causing greater problems than those he began with. But he does have a good heart. There is one beautiful scene where he takes his father to the fair on a Saturday night, and encourages him to have fun without any embarrassment at being seen out in public with a parent. It is a rouse to cure his father's depression, and does not succeed, but that doesn't matter. It is touching, engaging, incoherent, and encapsulates his quest perfectly.

The only thing that lets
Submarine down is its plot. Somewhere about halfway through it looses its way and you get the feeling you are treading water, existing simply to give Oliver a platform to think aloud rather than to reach an exciting conclusion. This doesn’t make for a nail-biting or rapidly onrushing finale, but it does lend an air of simple growth to what takes place. And at risk of sounding all Saturday evening TV on you, isn’t that what being a teenager is all about? Making mistakes, learning from them, and trying never to be quite such a brat again.

If you are looking for an enjoyable, amusing read then
Submarine is great. Joe Dunthorne is a witty, irreverent writer of great promise. He is a nice guy as well. And if you like Submarine and want to see him reading live, why not come along to Debut at Norwich Arts Centre on June 23rd, an evening of words and music with some of the hottest young writers around, including Chris Killen and Jenn Ashworth. For tickets and more information see the Norwich Arts Centre website here.

7 out of 10

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