‘‘There was a moment where I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m working on this novel and it’s getting shorter and shorter the more years I spend on it!’ It’s suddenly under 200 pages, and then I’m googling [Joe Dunthorne mimes frantic typing on the pub table], ‘How long is a novel? When does it become a novella?’”
Short it may be at 173pp, but Dunthorne’s third novel The Adulterants (Hamish Hamilton, February) is perfectly formed. Set in London in 2011, the narrator is Ray, a 33-year-old freelance tech journalist who mostly works from home in his pants, writing articles for tech.tracker.co.uk, which pays 10p a word. He is married to Garthene, a nurse on the Intensive Care Unit at Homerton Hospital, who is heavily pregnant. Despite the imminent birth of his first child, Ray is showing no sign of getting his act together.
It is a pin-sharp skewering of a certain type of modern urban thirtysomething male, trapped in a protracted adolescent state, partly caused by the sheer impossibility of buying a property in London. Dunthorne describes the book as “a coming-of-age novel about 33-year-olds”, and it is also a novel about the housing crisis in London; timely, forensically well observed and very, very funny.
When we meet at a pub in Hackney, east London, Dunthorne explains: “I’d been wanting to write a contemporary novel that responded to London, and cities like London, and what they are like to live in for certain kinds of people for a while.” The Adulterants began life five years ago as a short story (later published in the prestigious Paris Review magazine), which Dunthorne explains works for him as a “kind of mining process - I’ll keep writing short fiction until I write something that I think has legs to become a novel.”
He was inspired by “The Dinner Party”, a short story by the American writer Joshua Ferris. “It’s about privileged people in New York having a dinner party. It’s a very candid glimpse into their inner hollowness, and I loved it. I guess when I was writing my story, that was kind of my template.”
The Adulterants opens at a house party, where Ray becomes embroiled in the power play between his friends Lee and Marie, a couple who have an “open” marriage. Climbing into bed with Marie - which is fine, he reasons, as he is imagining Garthene is there in the room, too (she’s actually on a night shift at the hospital) - earns him a punch in the face from Lee. He then slopes off to the hospital to get Garthene to patch him up.
Dunthorne achieves the rare feat of making his central character both a total fuck up and yet strangely endearing. Although a decade older than an actual Millennial, he remains stuck in that mindset, seemingly unable to grow up. Dunthorne explains that “the satisfying thing for me as a writer was to pick the protagonist you have the least natural affinity for and the least natural sympathy for, and try and make him someone you want to spend time with. Humour is an amazing act of trickery, and I think when you make people laugh along with someone - or even at someone - just the act of finding something funny is warming. He may or may not know it but Ray is making himself a fool to the reader in certain ways, and that enables him to be likeable, despite his numerous unforgivable attributes. That’s why it has to be funny. I don’t try to write funny fiction simply because I like jokes, but because that has a real purpose in the narrative. With a character like Ray, you’ve got no other way - or at least, no other way that I can think of - to get the reader with him, and with you, than by making him great fun.”
He adds: “I think the easier and, I would argue, worse novel would be a straight satire and a takedown. That might have been the kind of novel I would have written earlier [in my career] but after having spent enough time [in London], I suppose I felt able to offer a character who was both unforgivable and loveable.”
The defining non-achievement in Ray’s life is his failure, through no fault of his own, to get on the housing ladder. He and Garthene are at the mercy of an estate agent who is fond of reminding them that the horrible maisonette they have gone to the asking price on is “the last family home at that price point anywhere within the M25”. When Ray spies some hated cash buyers poking around his imagined future home, something snaps. “The weird thing about London, and other cities like it, is that you are by many measures affluent but by this more traditional measure - owning a property - you are way off adulthood. Ray has plenty of disposable income, so in that way he does what he wants. But he doesn’t ever get to have that next stage,” says Dunthorne.
Things come to a head for the hapless Ray when he inadvertently becomes involved with the London riots. “Ray’s blinkered perspective, not just on the riots but on all sorts of things, means that his version of London at that time is so narrow that would he fail to pick up on all sorts of cues and moments of social and cultural import,” says Dunthorne. “That thing about London where people are walking down the same street, but actually they live in different cities.”
The title of the novel works on two levels. “I like it because it makes the book sound juicy and titillating,” says Dunthorne, as he points out that an adulterant is actually a toxin “or something that spoils something and that is actually the central metaphor of the book: the idea of a community or a city being in some way infected by a way of thinking or a type of behaviour.”
Dunthorne himself is an adopted Londoner. He was born and brought up in Swansea, and studied at the University of East Anglia, where he started writing his first novel Submarine, about a 15-year-old schoolboy in South Wales trying to save his parents’ marriage, and lose his virginity, during his final school year. When it was published by Penguin in the UK, and in 16 territories worldwide - it was also made into an acclaimed feature film, directed by Richard Ayoade, in 2011 - Dunthorne moved to east London, where he has lived ever since. His second novel Wild Abandon, which won the Royal Society of Literature Encore Award in 2012, was also set in Wales. Dunthorne once said in an interview that he would probably always set his novels in Wales, remarking that “London is too difficult, it’s too much of a maze to be authoritative about”. So what changed?
“I kept expecting to one day just feel authentically ‘London’. But rather than that, I guess I woke up one day and understood that my version of London makes me a Londoner and everyone has their own version [of the city],” he says. “Having a perspective or take on London was enough to write a novel about it. Maybe I’d imagined that a London novel had to be comprehensive... I think the opposite now.” The Adulterants is, he reckons, “like a single bus route through London”. And it’s one not to be missed.
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