One of the many advantages of working in a bookshop is the free books. Publishers will send you freebies so that you read them and (hopefully) then sell them to unsuspecting customers. This novel comes from Hamish Hamilton, who publish fantastic authors such as Hari Kunzru and Zadie Smith, so Submarine has a lot to live up to with people like these in its midst.
Oliver Tate is 14. His mission in life is three-fold: to save his parents’ marriage, to get laid and reading the dictionary so he can use big words. With these three things in mind, we follow his journey into adulthood. We watch him try and fix his parents’ marriage through feng shui, through drugs, and through staking them. We see his terrible teenage relationship with the eczema ridden Jordana. And there are enough pretentious words in the novel to fit the last bill.
First novels are always exciting, aren’t they? The possibilities are endless, with new voices coming through in fantastic, imaginative ways. Why, then, do so many first time authors feel the need to saturate the market with whiny, pretentious, annoying teenagers that are nothing more than echoes of themselves ten or twenty years ago? And why must they all read the same? The only exception I will grant is David Mitchell.
It doesn’t help that Oliver Tate rivals Charles Highway (see The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis) for most unlikeable protagonist. Ever. And yes, I’m sure that everyone was that annoying and stupid when they were 14. But I don’t want to read about it! Though, to be fair, I don’t think that many people poisoned their girlfriend’s dog, killing it, so that if her cancer-ridden mother dies, she will be able to cope with the grief. And yes, that is probably one of the most horrifying passages of book I have ever had the misfortune of reading.
On the plus side, I suppose, Dunthorne’s writing style is consistent throughout. Consistently pretentious and annoying. And yes, that is because of the character, I know. It still annoys me.
To give him his dues, the end of the novel is not a cop-out. Well, most of it isn’t anyway. I do like the way that Oliver gets his punishment from a girl who used to be teased mercilessly by him, and now turns out to be a stunningly attractive young woman. And the epilogue with his parents would seem to show that he might have actually learned something. Not much, considering the scarily rude way he still treats his parents, despite their respective nervous breakdowns.
Is it possible for someone to hate a genre as large and nebulous as ‘coming of age’ novels? Yes, because I do. Unless they are done really, really well. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t. Instead, authors resort to the stock standard pretentious 15 year old who has a way with big words, but never understands. Anything. Unfortunately, Submarine has done nothing to change my opinion on this topic. It will take a better man than Joe Dunthorne to move me.