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The Adulterants: a wickedly funny millennial Bildungsroman from Submarine’s Joe Dunthorne

An insightful portrait of the peculiarities of modern masculinity.

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. 

The Adulterants
Joe Dunthorne
Hamish Hamilton, 192pp, £12.99

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist