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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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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.