London's Burning

Joe Dunthorne, The Adulterants

Hamish Hamilton, 192pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780241305478

reviewed by Fintan Calpin

Ray, the 34-year-old anti-hero and narrator of Joe Dunthorne's The Adulterants, can't stop thinking about diffusion. Early on, he signals his comfort 'in the abstract' with the idea that 'when we smell something we absorb tiny bits of that smell's source. Fine.' But when his friend Dave 'draws his bottom lip up over his top lip and pulls down remnants of, in this instance, Picpoul de Pinet,' creating a 'fine, near-imperceptible mist of what we can safely assume is a mix of wine and mouth juices,' this contamination in the atmosphere is, as Ray and his pregnant wife Garthene agree, a 'profound turn-off.' Ray will spend much of this novel 'reminding us that the air we breathe is full of each other's fluids and innards and skin,' whether that's the adulterous 'private secretions' of a friend, the 'tiny faecal particles' of a hate-mail turd or atoms of 'carbonized womb' from the electrocauterising device used in C-sections.

Ray's obsession with adulterants appears at first as a quirk of his detached, analytical narration, helping him to hold the world at arm's length. When Ray details Dave's salivary spray, he expresses not revulsion but a sense of superiority: knowing this unpleasant habit of Dave's, and knowing that his wife Garthene finds it unattractive, empowers Ray. As the novel progresses and Ray's life meteorically goes to shit, we see that his habitual irony is the last defence of someone totally unable to deal with reality much beyond 'the abstract.'
The knowingness with which Ray keeps the world at bay ends up leaving him stranded, miles from shelter, in the wreckage of his life. Dunthorne manages an impressive feat by structuring his third novel so neatly around its titular pun on adultery and adulteration. This might also explain why the novel is so short. Dunthorne has stated that he cut it down from around twice its final length. What's left is a tightly wound story with a remarkably precise and sustained effect.

The Adulterants is set in London against the backdrop of the 2011 riots. Ray is a freelance tech journalist who flirts with the idea of cheating on his pregnant wife, resents his friends and worries about competing with cash buyers for a maisonette in Clapton. Dunthorne has a truly exceptional skill for characterisation, and in this regard there is hardly a sentence that misses its mark. Every line is loaded with Ray's misguided superiority, his smug and cynical self-awareness, energising the novel until it is so charged with dramatic irony it inevitably implodes. Like Oliver, the protagonist of Dunthorne's debut Submarine (2008), Ray is surprisingly endearing, his myopic and choleric takes on the world often deliciously relatable. A personal highlight is Ray musing on a coffee shop, where 'the glimpses of other people's laptop screens – running Final Draft or Final Cut – all these thirty-somethings who still hadn't given up on their dreams, it was disgusting.' Ray's bitterness is all the richer for his own not-quite-extinguished dream of getting on the property ladder and living out his life with Garthene and their child.

An honourable mention must go also to the supporting cast of characters, who are triggers and foils for Ray's frustrations: Lee and Marie with their struggling open relationship, Michael and Kamara with their model, five-figure-earning twin-daughters, and Dave, who goes from unattractive moustache-spray to a happy relationship with Allen (to Ray's hardly concealed surprise). The funniest scenes are in group situations, like the opening party or the picnic cut short by the outbreak of the August riots. Intercutting the niceties of socialising, Ray's bilious inner monologue is laugh-out-loud funny: 'I turned away to look at the sun, let my corneas burn. It felt good to have the handsome, hopeful faces of my friends replaced by a blank white dot, a hole punched where their smiles might be.' Meanwhile, it is through Garthene's interactions with him, her increasingly curt and measured responses, that we calculate the acceleration of Ray's nosedive.

The Adulterants is a millennial novel not simply in the sense that it dissects the psyche of the modern urban everyman, as the blurb announces, but in that it explores alienation and atomisation as defining features of millennial society. This novel is a comedy of manners, taking as its target the crippling irony and even more crippling sincerity of a generation that, upon entering adulthood, inherited an impossible housing market, precarious labour conditions and Twitter. It is a worthy successor in my mind to Chris Killen's 2015 novel In Real Life, a heartbreaking novel about the unbridgeable gap between university and your late twenties. Dunthorne is careful to embed Ray's choler in his unstable freelance tech journalism, his ambitions of home ownership thwarted by buy-to-let and his well-to-do parents, with their countless spare bedrooms. Ray translates these contradictions and difficulties in his material conditions into his relationships: 'That was the whole point of friends: to replace the family, welfare state and mental-health services.' It is no coincidence that Ray's downfall is triggered by his unlikely involvement in the riots, an eruption of social unrest after the police killing of Mark Duggan. Ray's political disengagement, casual, tokenising racism and lack of any sense of community create a problematic character, but also work to trace this process of psychic transferral of socio-economic problems.

Dunthorne has created here a timely portrait of the anti-hero of late capitalism that is funny, moving, relatable and dynamically self-aware. By the novel's final chapter, Ray seems to show a new consciousness of his unreliability as a narrator. He imagines himself in the sunshine, 'if it were sunny, which it isn't. It's another kind of weather I don't care to record.' No longer pretending to assert agency through his ironic knowingness, Ray acknowledges the gap between reality and his abstractions, subsuming that into a new kind of knowingness. Has Ray learnt a lesson here, or is he still trapped in the same cycles of internalisation and self-sabotage? The ambivalent tone of the novel's ending leaves this unresolved and asks questions of the anti-hero as a cultural construction. Does Ray adulterate the world for himself, or has life adulterated him? Dunthorne points ultimately to the porousness of the social membrane of the novel.