Sunday, August 17, 2008

Submarine by Joe Dunthorne

Submarine is an impressive debut novel by Joe Dunthorne from Swansea. Reviewers have been falling over themselves to label it the new Catcher in the Rye. True, Submarine is a coming-of-age tale featuring a smart-ass 15-year-old kid but - to my mind - it is more like an ultra-funny, teenage Notes from Underground.

Central character, Oliver Tate, lives in Swansea but exists mostly inside his own head. He is a spy covertly analysing his parents' faltering marriage. He is also on a mission to lose his virginity before reaching the legal age of consent. To his decent, liberal, parents and the world at large he is just a mildly troublesome adolescent, but through his interior narrative and occasional diary-keeping we glimpse his true, warped, character.

Tate is inquisitive, intelligent, self-assured, casually malicious, but also naive. Early on we learn that he is a narrator not to be trusted. The neighbours he spies on with a telescope turn out to be somewhat different from what he has led us to believe: the pansexual (that's somebody who is sexually attracted to everything) is actually a physiotherapist; the knacker is a painter-decorator; and the Zoroastrians are just a normal muslim family.

Although the plot and setting might appear mundane, Submarine's brilliance is in its defamiliarisation. (Viktor Shklovsky would have loved this book). Seeing the world through Tate's eyes we discover, not just that adolesence is a peculiar state of mind, but that suburban, middle-class life, can be even weirder. The novel is full of great observations on the ordinary: just why is it the responsibility of the person whose birthday it is to take the cake into work?

Viewing the world from an alien perspective is a constant source of humour in Submarine, but there is a darker edge to the comedy. When Oliver learns that his girlfriend's mother has a life-threatening tumour, he decides to accustom her to grief by assassinating her pet dog. Emotional ignorance rather than evil motivates his actions - Dunthorne demonstrating that innocence doesn't necessarily equate to being angelic.

Submarine is about the getting of knowledge, both experiential and intellectual. With the help of a dictionary and the internet, Tate strives to make sense of his world. As well as being a novelist, Dunthorne is a poet, and his relish and fascination for language has, clearly, been transferred to his leading protagonist. Thus, such delicious and strange words as triskaidekaphobia, flagitious, autarky and napthene are given an airing and, thankfully, their meanings explained.

From a Welsh point of view it is refreshing to read a Swansea-set novel that doesn't mention Dylan Thomas. The city, and surrounding areas, are given proper topographical substance: "There are wild horses on the scrags of grass on Mayhill. Some young men use them as public transport." Port Talbot steelworks is like: "Mrs Griffiths contrusting the world's ugliest simultaneous equation on the blackboard - all numbers, dashes, scraping and chalk dust." Marvellous.

Submarine by Joe Dunthorne is intelligent, extremely funny, and it's on sale now.