At the heart of The Adulterants, Joe Dunthorne’s millennial Bildungsroman, is Ray. Almost 34 (exactly when millennials are supposed to come of age is anyone’s guess), Ray is an underemployed freelance tech journalist and dad-to-be. He lives with his pregnant wife Garthene, an intensive care nurse, in north-east London, surrounded by a tight ensemble of friends who have more than a whiff of late-night Channel 4 comedy about them.
Ray has an inverse midas touch. When he accepts a can of lager from a stranger during a disturbance that resembles the 2011 London riots, his face ends up on a mobile billboard along with an appeal to “Shop a Looter”. He is convicted of aggravated trespass and handling stolen goods, having used the country’s worst unrest for two decades to break into his estate agent’s office and check the status of a “horrible maisonette” in Clapton on which he and Garthene have made a bid. “Buy-to-let,” he sees on the document that confirms the sale. Ray is gobsmacked: hood-up, downcast, barely aware that a group of young men are attempting to remove a flat-screen TV from the wall. “I let myself fill with anger. Small-scale landlords think nobody sees their quiet evil.”
Although he gets off lightly – because he is white – for this most London of crimes, Ray’s conviction is just one in a series of catastrophes that come thicker and faster as the slim novel unfolds. In this way he resembles Tommy Wilhelm, the thwarted anti-hero in Saul Bellow’s 1956 novella, Seize the Day.
Deposited amid a landscape of yum yums and Percy Pigs, viral shame, adultery and ankle tags, Tommy 2.0 is similarly on track for a moment of tearful catharsis. But where Bellow’s schlemiel reaches an atonement of sorts by weeping at a stranger’s funeral, Ray is less picky about where he loses it. “I had cried more times in the last month than in the last decade,” he says. “I was a crier now. The town crier.” It’s the old literary tussle between character and fate. Do these flawed beings deserve the punishment meted out to them, or do circumstances pin them down and punch them in the eye, over and over again?
Ray doesn’t give up. His disposition is often inexplicably sunny. How many modern writers would allow such unabashed joy to emerge from the trappings of comfortable coupledom? “[We] had imagined peeling back the carpet to reveal the floorboards beneath,” Garthene and Ray muse contentedly. “The thought of discovering floorboards. Bourgeois archeology”. Dunthorne has successfully shifted the whimsical adolescent voice that made his name in 2008’s Submarine, that of 15-year-old Oliver Tate, into adulthood.
The Adulterants is thrust-the-book-at-the-person-next-to-you hilarious. Its insights into the peculiarities of the British middle class approaching birthing age are as astute as they are merciless.
“Though I didn’t have my baby yet, I already had my righteousness,” Ray says. “I spent my time trying to think of ways to get rid of Lee,” he explains, after a failed attempt at polyamory by fellow almost-adults Lee and Marie. He decides to palm Lee off on somebody else. “That was the whole point of friends, in the modern age,” Ray says. “To replace the family, welfare state and mental health services.”
The book has been edited so well there’s not an inch of fat left on the prose, which at times gives it the feel of stand-up comedy. This is never more true than in scenes where Ray makes things tricky for his stoical wife – pregnant and working night shifts, accosted by police at her apartment door – a woman who appears so forgiving as to seem absent. She does not make jokes.
The plot takes care of this to some degree (I won’t spoil it by saying how). Although things go awry for Ray, for Garthene, their friends and for Clapton – my favourite sliver of rapidly gentrifying London, not just a backdrop to riots, but to pollution, misuse, underfunding and poverty jostling up against imported riches – what the novel ultimately asks is what it takes to make a parent. The book’s final image, of a couple outside an Irish pub forcefully agreeing that the other is not too drunk to drive their children home, is an apt point at which to end.
Despite financial straits, mania, powerlessness and egocentrism, Ray’s better qualities – loyalty, moral consideration and warmth – outweigh his failures. We never doubt his fatherly potential, even if he does. Among the den of snakes that is modern masculinity few are as good, or at least want to be as good, as Ray.
Hamish Hamilton, 192pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry