The Adulterants is a very funny comedy of arrested development: a coming-of-age novel in which the main character is 33. Ray Morris is a shallow, infantile narcissist reluctantly facing the terrors of adulthood, in the form of his general lack of prospects, and the well-advanced pregnancy of his wife, Garthene, an intensive care nurse. (‘It is terrific to have a partner with the name Garthene. Just the mention of it brings decorum to a conversation.’) A freelance tech journalist, he sits in the front room of his flat in Clapton writing short articles about smart thermostats and attendance levels at IT conferences for a website called Techtracker.co.uk. In his twenties, Ray had enjoyed doing ‘boring, badly paid work because I could imagine telling future interviewers about it in the context of my brilliant success’. He had amused himself by, for instance, writing sentences composed exclusively of two and three-letter words in order to maximise his returns, at ten pence per word: ‘Do buy it if – big if – the men at LG can fix the bug in the Blu-ray.’ But now that responsibilities loom, the ‘tiny rebellions’ and the ironic underachievement feel less sustaining.
Joe Dunthorne’s third novel is a story about bourgeois Londoners coming to the end of their long-drawn-out adolescence, and realising that they have the same tedious needs and aspirations as everyone else:
Throughout our twenties, it had been embedded in our world view that even to talk about property was death itself – the clue was the word mortgage, death pledge in French. Then we hit our thirties, Garthene got pregnant and we started going to viewings. Though we tried to maintain a moral superiority, soon we found ourselves rapping our knuckles against partition walls and saying, without irony, We could knock this through.
Ray’s avidity for property is one of the novel’s recurring themes. The couple have made an ‘asking-price offer on a horrible maisonette beyond the Lea Bridge roundabout’. The omens aren’t good, though, and as the estate agent repeatedly informs potential buyers, it is ‘the last family house at this price point within the M25’. Always lurking in the background is the spectre of the buy-to-let buyer (‘small-scale landlords think nobody sees their quiet evil’).
It’s rare today to see a really talented writer go all-out for comedy, but Dunthorne makes it look like the obvious choice. The story is set in Hackney a few years back among a ‘friendship group’ of thirtysomethings, mostly in creative but not very creative professions – website managers, focus pullers and marketing professionals: ‘Marie was co-director of a qualitative research company. Her job involved having deep, personal conversations with ordinary people about, for example, life, death, love and fate, as a way to better understand, for example, dishwasher tablets.’
In the book’s central set-piece, the friends are seen enjoying a weekday picnic, complete with mackerel pâté, baba ganoush and ‘overpriced and disgusting’ English champagne, as the riots of 2011 suddenly erupt around them. Every successful piece of fiction has to convince the reader that the writer has matched their subject matter to the appropriate genre. And where so many modern British novels with modern British settings founder in their attempt to wring compelling dramas out of trivial, uneventful lives, Dunthorne seems on very solid ground. What other form except broad comedy could you use to depict these pampered kidults, with their carpenters’ shirts, their fancy smartphones and their pointless jobs?
As far as the plot goes, Ray makes, as a friend deadpans, ‘a series of poor decisions’. Dunthorne’s comic scheme involves him committing a number of venial sins, for which he is extravagantly punished. In the first few pages, he gets into bed with Marie, a close friend, at a party. Nothing much happens, and he justifies everything in the devious, self-deluding style we have come to expect from first-person narrators: ‘We didn’t take off our shoes, which made a difference, morally.’ But Marie’s husband, Lee, doesn’t accept the same fine distinctions, and punches him in the face. This incident leads to the breakdown of Lee and Marie’s marriage, as a result of which a miserable, alcoholic Lee takes up residence on the sofa in Ray’s flat. And this, in turn, leads to the picnic, which Ray organises to rally Lee’s friends around him. Later that day, as Ray wanders the streets, excited by the mayhem, he accepts a couple of cans of looted beer from ‘a large man with badly executed neck tattoos’. Some time afterwards, a billboard appears featuring a huge photograph of Ray drinking the beer, smiling and ‘picnic-ready’, next to the words: ‘Shop a looter.’ From this point on, his fate as a comic scapegoat seems assured.
The Adulterants is brief and accessible, but very carefully crafted: it is Dunthorne’s first novel since Wild Abandon (2011), and he has said that the longer he spent writing it, the shorter it got. It makes no very great claims for itself, but I imagine it would be disappointed if you were not amused by the performance. As a writer, Dunthorne is very much focused on the next gag. (‘When I think of a decent joke I just have to make it,’ Ray says.) His prose is usually unfussy, unless it’s parodying something. It typically comes in a series of comic flurries that build up to something like a punchline:
I spent my time trying to think of ways to get rid of Lee. Might I buy him a gym membership? Or help him write a misleading dating profile? Or take him to the GP for beta blockers? Finally I settled on palming him off on our other friends. That was the whole point of friends: to replace the family, welfare state and mental-health services.
Readers who are allergic to irony and archness may not be impressed – the book is so arch that you could drive a horse and carriage through it – but it provides a steady flow of good gags and is, in its way, satisfyingly resonant too.
In its straightforward comic determination to please, The Adulterants is without many precedents in recent British fiction, unless you count Dunthorne’s own remarkable debut, Submarine (2008). (Wild Abandon, about an alternative community in Wales, is enjoyable, but less distinctive, less funny, more in the fictional mainstream.) Ray could be a disappointed grown-up version of Submarine’s precocious teenage narrator, Oliver Tate. Both are character studies that remind you how annoying really funny people often are. Both have the same undertow of sexual creepiness, and the same unhealthy fixation with researching medical conditions. Oliver pretends to have Cotard’s syndrome – a branch of autism where people believe they are dead – in order to entertain himself and disturb his mother, dropping phrases such as ‘My body has been replaced by a shell’ and ‘I have been dead for years’ into the conversation. Ray works through the alphabetised section on neonatal diseases in a book called Expecting Everything:
I learned every disease off by heart. Aids, anencephaly, autism, biotinidase deficiency. I found it helpful to quietly enunciate them. Bronchiolitis, cerebral palsy, classic galactosemia. I whispered to myself, ‘classic galactosemia’. After each disease, the book gave a figure, a likelihood: 1 in 2000, 1 in 350, 1 in 100. I found myself hoping some children would take the brunt of maybe three or four serious conditions and cook the books a little.
Otherwise, looking for influences or ancestors for The Adulterants, you might think less of books than of TV comedies such as Channel 4’s Peep Show or of Nathan Barley, a character conceived by Charlie Brooker as ‘an upper-middle-class London media pissant who sorely deserves an ice-pick in the cheek’. Dunthorne’s comic targets are sitcom-like in that they are not particularly original: he makes fun of hipsters and media types and estate agents; he subjects Ray to an unwelcome house guest and an internet hate campaign; he has an amusing birth scene. But he is subtle and inspired in his language – he’d never use a lazy media tag like ‘hipster’, for instance – and in his little comic flips, in the way he constructs each episode. Whether it’s describing fat summer flies as ‘high on bin juice’ or pointing out that holding hot drinks with two hands ‘makes people appear warmer, kinder, more trustworthy’, Dunthorne injects wit into almost every paragraph. As a result, each scene is rather brilliant, with occasional plangent grace notes which threaten to make something poignant out of Ray’s disastrous life: ‘The phone went dark. We were lit only by the twitching of the wi-fi router.’
Occasionally, Dunthorne over-reaches. He has the reflexive enthusiasm for hyperbolically ‘dark’ scenes seen in edgier TV comedy, but he’s usually funnier when the scenes are more low-key and believable. Similarly, there are moments when a comedy of manners seems to become outright moral satire, with mixed results. This, I suppose, is the force of his punning title: his characters commit adultery, but they also debase or make impure. But compared to other cosseted young people in satire – in Evelyn Waugh or Bret Easton Ellis, say – Ray doesn’t seem amoral and culpable so much as confused and pathetic. And Dunthorne remains surprisingly sympathetic to his plight, as he becomes an ‘unusual person’: the sort of person who stands at the front of the bus by the plexiglass screen, shouting at the driver. The first words of The Adulterants, spoken by a pretentious woman at a party, are: ‘And I think it’s a problem with our idea of innocence.’ By the end, the novel has proposed an original conception of innocence; sympathy and contempt, warmth and acidity, irony and sincerity are mixed up together in surprising but satisfying proportions. The terrific final scene features Ray, Lee and Marie in a pub, playing a game where they retell ‘each other’s traumatic life events as if they are our own’. After drinking ‘to the damage’, they leave together, facing the ambiguous grown-up future:
It is dark when we head outside, arms round each other’s shoulders. In the car park, we see three children strapped in the back of a green people carrier. Standing outside it are their pink-headed parents in khaki shorts, both agreeing that he is under the drink-driving limit.