The “coming-of-age” teenage novel is now a well-weathered archetype, every bit as established in the literary pantheon as the state of the nation diorama, or the star-crossed romantic tragedy. A teenage narrator has the potential to reflect the world in a purer and starker state. At the same time, the self-righteous certainty and ignorance endemic to adolescence can clash against this purity with a jarring clang .Those writers in this genre emphasising the former fact aim for the profound and lyrical, the majority home in on the latter and aim for comedy. Catcher in the Rye can be regarded as the apotheosis of the first outlook, the Adrian Mole series the standard-bearer of the second. Submarine, the first novel of Swansea born poet Joe Dunthorne, first released in 2008 and now making its way into paperback aims to capture both these aspects. Does it succeed?
15 year old Swansea boy Oliver Tate is clever, obsessive, solipsistically single-minded and doggedly literal in his grappling with the world. Oliver sees life as a series of black-and-white logic puzzles which can be solved as soon as the correct equations come to hand. New words are memorised on a daily basis (forming the book’s chapter headings, including autarky, decollation, fastigium and quidnunc ), people are slotted into different categories like so many enzymes in a petri-dish. Minute details of his neighbours and school mates appearance and lives are mulled over with clinical detail. Fixated on minor detail (observing during kisses that his girlfriend Jordana has been drinking semi-skimmed milk) Tate is also given to rather outre’ similes of the mind (bottles in a bottle-bank for instance are likened to the piled corpses of Holocaust victims. )
At times, the cold analysis hot-wires with the fever of his rampant imagination and the classification goes awry. A local physiotherapist is classed as a “pansexual” (attracted to everything), a local Muslim family re-categorised as far more exotic Zoroastrians, both on equally flimsy evidence. With the pansexual physio, Tate books an appointment and puts the accusation to him. Here is a lad who likes to see things through.
High among Oliver’s lists of to-do are achieving penetrative sex with Jordana, and attempting to heal the perceived rift in the marriage of his progressive parents, those of the type given to “improving” holidays. Dad is a teacher, puffed up with over-emphatic jollity and prone to clinical depression, his mum seemingly tiring of this forced contrast and seeking attention elsewhere. The re-emergence of her past boyfriend Graham, a new-age capoeira teacher spurs Oliver to take increasingly drastic action, exploding into a spiral of chaos.
Last year’s hardback release of Submarine plunged through an ocean of plaudits, “excellent”, “brilliant”, “the sharpest funniest, rudest account of a troubled teenager’s coming of age since Catcher in the Rye”, “Adrian Mole for adults, with a more complicated protagonist, truer to life and infinitely funnier.” Well, let’s begin therefore with a churlish pissing on the parade, and start with the negatives. There are very few great novels, and Submarine is not one of them . Whilst engaging with both the teenage novel-models I banged on about at the beginning, its default mode is the latter. The occasional note of grating whimsy, the perennial flaw with the teen comedy genre, is not therefore altogether absent. Furthermore, Oliver’s mental voice is set to an odd pitch, clipped, detached and pedantic. While certainly funny, it can sometimes be hard to see whether this emotional distance hinges on a slight affectation on his part – a deliberate ploy of making himself slightly stranger for the reader – or a genuine dislocation bordering on, if not straying into, outright autism (which is why at times I thought the narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was a closer model than the Holden Caulfield or Adrian Mole.) Finally, while bustling with amusing and arresting set pieces, none grabs you so hard you either laugh out loud or achieve a moment of the truly sublime.
Pissing over with. Submarine may not be great, but is very good. It is consistently funny, with a flair for evocative description which puts Dunthorne’s background as a poet to fine use.
And while his voice may seem just a little too strange to be true, the obsessions of a teenage mind are captured expertly, the (un)healthy obsessing and pondering, the snagging of the mind on seemingly irrelevant words and images. It often rang very true with this here former teenager at least. It’s also bold and interesting and characterisation to not cast Tate as the pure lovable outsider in the Mole mode either. Tate’s forensic instinct for survival means he has managed to offset his social inadequacies enough to worm his way into the entourage of “Chips”, a popular bully in his school’s hierarchy, and is quite happy to join in the sadistic taunting of overweight outsider Zoe. ( In typically over-hyper-efficient style he writes a “how-to” guide for her in how to avoid bullying, re-created in full, the shifts of style in the book are another strength).
The consequences of Tate’s clinical outlook on life are not just slapstick funny, but at times quite darkly humorous too. The unthinkingly uncaring treatment of Jordana when she discovers her mother has cancer is the clearest example – “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” he reflects at this point with quite breathtaking callousness. The fact he sees himself as the wronged party following her angry reaction tests the very limits to how we can sympathise with the self-obsessed little scrote.
But sympathise we do, because the figure drawn from these lines of absurdity, brilliance, malignancy, is one captured very well. Every other player is finely crafted too. The earthy charm borne through rough self-confidence of thug Chips; the bumptious but essentially loveable dad all the more poignant in his naffness, the bad girl Jordana who melts into more pathetic humanity amid her own heartbreak…there are plenty of opportunities to teeter over the brink into broad comedy caricature, and Dunthorne always manages to avoid them, in the same way that, while set in the early 90s, inane observations about ooh-aren’t-the-mobile-phones-big-yo-ho-ho are avoided too. He reveals himself as a minor master observer in the subtle comedy of manners. And he proves that, yes, he has succeeded in combining the poetically profound and lamentably laughable sides of the teenage condition.
In the creation of Oliver Tate, Dunthorne has managed to marry the sublime and absurd sides of the teenage tale, and shown better than most that there isn’t necessarily too much difference between the two. He has also revealed a real flair for mood and language which should evolve further in another novel, without the inherent limitations of this genre. So, nice one Joe, let’s have another one.