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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

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

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