First came the synonym-loving Alex in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, and now there is the equally wordy Oliver Tate in the first novel from 25-year-old Joe Dunthorne. Tate is given a pocket dictionary and a thesaurus by his clinically depressed father and he makes voluble use of them.
Pretty soon it becomes plain that Dunthorne, a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s creative writing MA and winner of the course’s Curtis Brown Prize, also knows his way round a lexicon and, indeed, shares a fair amount with his protagonist. Both Oliver and Joe come from Swansea, were aged 15 in 1997, when Submarine begins, and both have fathers who lecture at the city’s university.
Dunthorne narrates everything from Oliver’s viewpoint, skewering suburban banalities with dexterity. Depression comes in bouts, “like boxing. Dad is in the blue corner.”
Beyond these flashy turns, the plotlines are slight. Oliver’s parents don’t quite split up; he loses his virginity and then his first girlfriend. At worst, reading Submarine is like being beaten at Scrabble by a straight-A*s schoolchild. Yet, through Oliver’s words, Dunthorne captures the mores of Britain today better than novelists twice his age. He is sure to write books with more to declare than their vocabulary.