Joe Dunthorne’s novel is an hilarious read with plenty of heart, writes Eli Dolliver
Submarine, by Joe Dunthorne, is the funniest book I have ever read. I want everyone to read it – even people I don’t like, even people who don’t deserve it. It’s the only book that’s ever made me laugh as hard as television. The events of Submarine revolve around the universe of Oliver Tate and his small Welsh town, complete with modern-day issues of mystics, hummus, homeopathy, depressed dads, the art of bullying, and getting laid before you turn sixteen.
We all like fiction for the same reason: escapism. It lets us go places we could never go, be people we could never be. I consider myself a pretty decent person, which is why a voyeuristic adventure into the mind of narcissistic, sex-crazed, manipulative and self-centred fifteen year old Oliver is so much fun. Teenagers are fun. They’re mean, they’re stupid, and they’re embarrassing. But more than that, their emotions have a red rawness and honesty we spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture. The world through Oliver’s eyes is poetry, not because it’s bedecked with metaphor and simile, but precisely because it lacks it. Jordana, his girlfriend, reminds him of fire not because she is passionate, but because of the eczema that burns up her neck.
Oliver lives in a world entirely of his own design. The chiropractor across the street is a pansexual, the Muslims down the road are Zoroastrians, and he himself is a great romantic and intellectual. He goes to stare at the sea “until it catches up with his mood”, he scrutinises his parent’s lives with a studied sociological air, and pens such poetic phrases as “we are now as one. I could drink her blood”.
While these musings are beautiful in their own right, what makes Submarine hilarious is the conflict between the romance and intellect of Oliver’s imagined self, and the teenage mortification of what he’s actually doing.
His clumsy manipulations, reluctantly bullying the fat girl, convincing his unimpressed girlfriend into sleeping with him, spying on his mother, and masturbating in his wardrobe “because of that newborn feeling as you stumble back into the well-lit room. A kind of Narnia”.
The most valuable element of Submarine is undeniably its humour. Oliver is, for lack of a better word, an asshole. He discovers ‘delusion syndrome teenage’ in his mother’s search history and in response slips phrases like “my internal organs are made of stone” and “I have been dead for years” into conversation. He bullies his classmates:
“Sam Portal is Church of England. I tell him that the Bible is a work of fiction. I ask him why he chooses Christianity over the other religions. I write him post it notes from God and stick them on the inside of his physics textbook. It is important to keep duplicates of good deeds. See below: Dear Sam, don’t listen to your friend Oliver Tate, I put him on earth to confuse you. Keep it on the hush-hush. Much love, the one who signs off with a cross. X”
He even tries to poison his girlfriend’s dog. Outside of Oliver’s actions, the tale is narrated with his hilarious one-liners: “finely chopping half an onion, I hope to cry but it does not happen, similar to Uncle Mark’s funeral”.
That, along with Dunthorne’s fantastic comedic timing, made its transfer to screen such a success.
But beyond the hilarity of the novel there is great heart. Oliver’s actions, however comedic, are enacted with the solemn and touching earnestness that only a fifteen year old can impart. When he hilariously attempts to sabotage his mother’s affair, he does so with a desperate determination to save his family. His childish attempts to seduce Jordana come from a desire expressed so peculiarly there is no doubt in our minds that it is sincere and beautiful: “she has collarbones that stick out and make me want to do handstands on them”.
Dunthorne’s descriptive skill is remarkable. His portraits of characters, while often brief, seem to create nostalgic memories for us; these are people we could have gone to school with, people we almost feel we recognise: “Arwen Slade – she wears a brace and is deeply unattractive. I kissed her on the way to Dan-Yr-Ogof Show Caves. She’d just eaten half a bag of flying saucers. Her saliva tasted like coins. Arwen is proud of her fillings; she has one for every year of her life”. Despite Oliver’s flaws, we also associate and sympathise with him deeply in a way that only happens when we are exposed to every sincere thought of someone’s mind- he does have problems- his dad is depressed, his parent’s relationship is in trouble, his girlfriend’s mum has cancer.
The treasure of Submarine is that it reminds us what it’s like to walk the precarious line of childhood and adulthood: how vast and desperately significant the events of our lives then seemed, but also the unbearable humiliation that seems to go hand in hand with being fifteen. Submarine doesn’t try to be clever, it doesn’t try to make a point, it is simply a snapshot into a young boy’s life. I would call it a coming of age story, but Oliver Tate doesn’t seem to learn anything or grow up in any regard, which is refreshing in itself. Joe Dunthorne’s only novel, Submarine is a flash of humanity and humility, a reminder of what we were and what we are now, and it is utterly, utterly, charming.