First-person narrators can be bloody annoying, especially in novels. To give us anything like the full story, they need to be know-it-alls. But if their point of view is limited, we spend half our time squinting into their peripheral vision – working out the story from the bits they’ve shied away from due to shame, guilt or the author’s unwillingness to do research. And then there are their endless, uninterrupted voices: describing objects, describing people, on and on ...
There’s a terrifyingly knowing eloquence to the voice of Ray Morris, the narrator of Joe Dunthorne’s third novel, The Adulterants. This is Ray on his wife:
Garthene’s head, at a guess, had the dimensions of a child’s shoebox. I adored this about her and looked forward to our retirement when her hair’s thinning would reveal further nuances. The fact that I would never guess the exact shape was one of the ways in which our marriage would stay fresh.
Ray’s job is words; he’s a tech journalist. Garthene’s job is heads and bodies; she is an ICU nurse. Their late-30s metropolitan lives are monstered, as is the entire novel, by rampaging house prices. The unlikelihood of them becoming property owners increases every time they are outbid by cash buyers. Ray, as much the voice of his generation as Oliver Tate, teenage narrator of Dunthorne’s first novel, Submarine, skewers their existence:
Throughout our twenties, it had been embedded in our world view that even to talk about property was death itself – the clue was the word mortgage, ‘death pledge’ in French. Then we hit our thirties, Garthene got pregnant and we started going to viewings. Though we tried to maintain a moral superiority, soon we found ourselves rapping our knuckles against partition walls and saying, without irony, We could knock this through.
The problem, as very soon becomes clear, is that Ray is so knowing that he has no idea how innocent he is
Set mostly during the London riots of 2011, The Adulterants is about partitions being removed. Some of the partitions are physical, such as when Garthene’s pregnancy ends in a caesarean section, but most are social and emotional. The opening sentence, a line of flirtatious dialogue, sets Ray off on his journey: “And I think it’s a problem with our idea of innocence.” The problem, as very soon becomes clear, is that Ray is so knowing that he has no idea how innocent he is. He is knowing because he has grown up in a culture that has replaced knowledge with knowingness. Ray is just a worse than usual case, because he is knowing about being knowing about being knowing.
While the riots are taking place, Ray wanders past shops as they are being trashed. He later describes this as “Observation. Tourism. Heavy looking.” Getting into the swing of things, he innocently accepts a couple of stolen cans of lager from a man with neck tattoos. “It was the sort of lager I considered myself too good for.” He then steps through the shattered display window of an estate agent to check the files on who has recently outbid him and Garthene on a “horrible maisonette”. And all the while, he smiles knowingly.
When, a couple of days later, his image features on a “Shop a Looter” billboard, it is Ray’s smile that makes him go viral rather than any of the other CCTV antiheroes. He becomes the Happy Tragedy Man, and the internet trolls him without mercy. Now everyone knows who he is.
The Adulterants, from its punning title onwards, is brilliantly knowing about its knowingness. It knows the only way we’ll tolerate a narrator as annoying as Ray is to punish him for the very virtues that make him a good narrator – nosiness and eloquence. Ray shares these virtues with the main character in Tobias Wolff’s now classic short story “Bullet in the Brain”, in which a know-it-all literary critic caught up in a bank robbery gets shot in the head for taking the piss out of the cliched way in which the bank robbers speak. In Wolff’s story, the punishment for knowingness is death; Dunthorne is more forgiving, but offers a more indirect route to redemption.
After appearing on the billboard, Ray decides to hand himself in. He takes the bus to the police station. “The cop shop, I thought to myself, enjoying language previously unavailable to me.” Even here, Ray has got himself wrong. The language, like the lager, was always available; he just considered himself too good for it. We know better.
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An underachieving techie living in east London is about to become the latest in a pedigree line of comic English anti-heroes such as John Self from Martin Amis’s Money and Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.
Joe Dunthorne’s eagerly awaited third novel, The Adulterants, comes a full 10 years after his acclaimed debut, Submarine, established him as a worthy successor to Hornby and Amis. Early readers are already hailing its “subversive joy”, and celebrating the dyspeptic take on life of its protagonist, Ray.
In his first interview ahead of the book’s publication, Dunthorne, 35, told the Observer why creating the darkly funny story took so long. “It seems to be getting harder each time, which is really disappointing,” he said. “It took more out of me than the others have done.”
Dunthorne’s second novel, Wild Abandon, came out in 2011, but the progress of The Adulterants, which is about “stalled masculinity” and facing up to parenthood, was slowed further by a change to his lifestyle. He became a father to his first child, Lorne, last summer.
“The birth of my son ousted me from my study and then up until just before Christmas I was really on the edge. Now he seems to be sleeping.”
It's tricky to get an unreliable narrator right
Richard Ayoade’s 2010 film of Submarine raised Dunthorne’s profile exponentially. “Although there are a lot of people who know me through Submarine, I certainly think that book would not have made me well-known on its own,” he said. “I am famous through my connection to the world of the film.”
The novel told the story of an unpopular Welsh schoolboy, Oliver Tate, and his growing feeling for his friend Jordana.
“People have asked me to write a sequel,” said Dunthorne. “Maybe a prequel might be possible one day, if I could make a younger boy the centre of that kind of story.”
The Adulterants marks something of a minimalist turn in his career. “The novel was twice as long at one point. But the final thing is so short it is almost not a novel. I don’t know if this is just my life, but everything seems to be narrowing. Things generally seem to be getting more modest and more destructive.”
In the narrative, Ray keeps up a critical internal commentary on the world around him, targeting estate agents, open marriages and the threat posed by sensitive men. So what is the appeal for Dunthorne of the deadpan, misanthropic voice of such anti-heroes?
“It is very easy to believe in someone who has a million ways in which they feel superior to their surroundings, especially when you know they are wrong,” Dunthorne said. “But it requires judgement, as you try to find an engaging voice to offer the reader fresh-seeming ways to hate the world. Catcher in the Rye is the model, I suppose. It is tricky to get an unreliable narrator right. You have to enjoy their sense of their own rightness inside their own sheltered world.”
Dunthorne is already working on a television adaptation of the new book but said he did not write it with a screen version in mind, despite the cinematic success of his debut.
“Submarine had been written in a style that was very unsuitable for filming and that did not stop it from being seen that way. The TV version of The Adulterants will probably be more about the other characters in the ensemble. There is a lot I didn’t use in the final book.”
I didn't set out to write about ‘becoming a man’
Dunthorne, who grew up in Swansea, has also written video games and finds the layering of subplots intriguing, whether in a game or a novel. He is also a published poet, particularly admiring the work of the German-born American poet and novelist Denis Johnson, who died last year. His own collection of poems will be published next year.
Even his new anti-hero’s voice contains moments of poetry. “I like having a character who is both stupid and lyrical within the same paragraph, even if it can seem inconsistent. A lot of the book is deliberately not offering a consistent way of seeing. It is a memory after all.”
Four years into his struggle with The Adulterants he found he was to become a father. “It was already happening in my friendship group. The change in the lives of my closest friends meant I was asking them what it was like to become a parent. At the beginning of writing the book I was interviewing them, as it seemed amazing and incomprehensible to go from being able to service your ego 24 hours a day to not having even half a day a week to do that.”
When you become a parent, you feel you are going to be a better person
The idea for Ray’s story began as a short story, which became a rough draft of the first chapter. “I felt the voice taking on something interesting, yet I did not set out to write about ‘becoming a man’. It is more about the enormity of what is expected and how, when you become a parent, you feel you are going to be a better person.”
The comic form comes naturally to Dunthorne but he knows it is potentially “reductive”. “I would self-identify as a comic novelist, but that suggests all I do is make jokes.
“I could make some highbrow justification for my literary project: in the end, though, it’s a question of whether the reader feels pulled to spend some time with a white, privileged douchebag.”