In his third novel, The Adulterants, Joe Dunthorne captures the anxieties that come with being a British man in his 30s with the same accuracy, easy wit and telling detail he brought to his 2008 debut, Submarine. Like Oliver Tate, the teenage protagonist of that book, Ray is struggling with the transition to adulthood. His wife, Garthene, an endlessly patient nurse, is eight months pregnant, but Ray is scraping a living as a freelance tech journalist, churning out listicles for a pittance. Unlike some of the couple’s friends, property ownership remains a distant dream.
Ray addresses his issues – insecurities about his marriage, his friendships, his worth in the world, and the impending shift in his responsibilities – by making a number of poor-to-awful choices. Most of these he blames on circumstance, societal pressure and, occasionally, his wife – but never on himself.
He contemplates cheating on Garthene while drunk at a party only to end up getting punched in the face when it turns out his friends’ open marriage wasn’t as open as he had thought. He gets himself arrested. He begins to worry that Garthene is cheating on him.
Joe Dunthorne: ‘This novel took more out of me than the others’
But while he has a gift for self-sabotage and is often extraordinarily selfish, Ray remains engaging and relatively sympathetic. Through Garthene’s interactions with him, you get a sense of how swiftly he is unravelling. Like Tom Lee’s recent novel, The Alarming Palsy of James Orr, The Adulterants examines the fragility of masculinity and the primal urge to provide.
The novel takes place during the London riots and Dunthorne also touches on gentrification, as well as the economic and psychological gap between generations – Ray’s parents live a comfortable life in Suffolk in a house that has more than one spare room. There’s a particularly timely passage, too, about retribution via social media and public shaming.
Dunthorne is a superbly economical writer – he crams an awful lot of plot into 173 pages – and one with a poet’s sensibility: a room is described as “uncle-scented”; a paper plate of baba ganoush is “smooshed” under a shoe. He is also properly funny. There are several snort-through-your-nose moments, including Ray’s encounter with a policewoman, when his every word exacerbates his predicament. But throughout, the novel’s comedy is always balanced by insight and poignancy.
• The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne is published by Hamish Hamilton (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.04 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Hello friends. Here’s the latest episode of Death Of 1000 Cuts. I said I was going to record some chats with other writers and lo, here is the first of what will hopefully be ‘a bunch’. Joe Dunthorne has appeared on the podcast before, helping me look at a couple of listeners’ first pages, but today we had a chat about what he’s learned from writing three novels, and what is still as difficult and perplexing as ever. He’s really honest and witty and warm and I’m sure you’ll find a lot of his experiences helpful and strangely comforting, insofar as writing excellent, critically-acclaimed novels turns out to be Not Easy.
If you’d like to read his latest, it’s called THE ADULTERANTS – just click this link to buy.
His previous novels are WILD ABANDON and SUBMARINE and they are nuanced, clever, funny and full of humanity. His new poetry collection, O POSITIVE, is due out next year.
Once you’ve filled your boots with great stuff by Joe, if you like the podcast and would like to help me cover my costs and continue writing, please click this link and buy a copy or two of my novel, THE HONOURS. It looks sexy and makes a smashing gift.
If you find this podcast valuable, you can chip in towards my hosting costs by clicking through to my Ko-fi page and drop me whatever you feel is reasonable in two clicks. I really appreciate all the listeners who have done so already – you’re frickin awesome, and I’m on a shoestring here so it genuinely helps.