Friday, June 5, 2009

Submarine, Joe Dunthorne

“One of the things I have discovered is that, although my father’s beard looks ginger from a distance, when you get close up it is in fact a subtle blend of black, blond and strawberry.
I have also learnt that my parents have not had sex in two months. I monitor their intimacy via the dimmer switch in their bedroom. I know when they have been at it because the next morning the dial will still be set to half way.”

Oliver Tate is 15. He is abnormally preoccupied with his parents’ marital relations, determined to lose his virginity before he turns 16, and has a girlfriend who can do some very clever things with matches. Oliver is fond of new words, translucent skin, and will happily feed rat poison to your dog if he thinks it will 'safeguard' your long-term emotional stability.

Joe Dunthorne has a real flair for language, splattering the pages with one-liners and odd observations, as gleaned from the delightfully skewed mind of a protagonist whose mixture of intelligence and immaturity is best served in the guise of a teenage boy. Oliver can pen witty diary entries to appease his girlfriend (crafting delicious parodies of Adrian Mole), yet remain stubbornly oblivious to notions of tact, subtlety, and common sense. Misadventures and grievous errors are sure to ensure.

Consistently funny without ever feeling too forced, the narration far outshines the plot, which is a little random and not as compelling as Oliver’s observational nuggets. This is a novel perhaps best enjoyed in small segments, for as witty as Oliver’s precisely phrased narration is, the resulting detachment can feel a bit chilly at times. Indeed, Dunthorne’s protagonist is curiously reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s infamous autistic narrator (also a fifteen year old boy). It is the sort of deadpan delivery that is initially striking but can feel a bit oppressive if you don’t take a break after a chapter or two.

Despite its teeny tiny shortcomings, Submarine remains an impressively assured debut from a very promising new(ish)* talent.

*(It was published last year, so shame on me for taking so long to find it.)

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