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Literary event: Joe Dunthorne
Published in late 2008, Submarine by Joe Dunthorne has undoubtedly taken Britain by storm, and has rapidly became one of the must-read novels of 2011 writes Amy Ryan

His first novel and published only just in 2008, Submarine by Joe Dunthorne has
undoubtedly taken Britain by storm, and has rapidly became one of the must-read
novels of 2011. Having been majorly impressed by Submarine, I went along to
Dunthorne’s reading at York St John University and was very interested in what he
had to say following up the huge success of both novel and film adaptation. I am
aiming to combine this with a book review of Submarine to convince you to consider
reading one of the most hilarious, refreshing and honest pieces of work I have enjoyed
reading in a long time.

Although the novel is aimed at adults, Dunthorne brilliantly and accurately captures
the physical and emotional journey of an adolescent in what seems to be a crazy,
disjointed world. Submarine has often been compared to Adrian Moles’ Diary by
Sue Townsend, however I must agree with Dunthorne when he remarked that it was
an ‘inauthentic novel’, sounding like the story of the pains and struggles of growing
up had been wrote impersonally by a middle aged woman…which it was. He was
22 when he started to write Submarine as his teenage experience was still fresh in
his mind; as an alternative to Adrian Mole, he was eager to give an honest and sharp
account of what it truly feels like to essentially ‘grow up’.

Fifteen year old Oliver Tate is the intelligent, funny and what I can only describe as
the bizarre protagonist of the novel. Living in Dunthorne’s hometown of Swansea,
Oliver amusingly and misguidedly struggles to save his parents’ love life, is
determined to lose his virginity to girlfriend Jordana by the age of sixteen, considers
all the different ways of murdering Jordana’s dog Fred, bullies Zoe, aka FAT so he
can remain popular at school, and constructs together a self help pamphlet for her
titled, ‘How to fit in with people you don’t like even when you are an Endomorph.’
All in all he wades through and experiences the murky waters of adolescence just
as any other teenager has to, but the narrative effortlessly induces you to laugh and
sympathise with him until the very end.

What makes Oliver different and loveable as a protagonist however is his mix of
ignorance and self-assurance that is certain to only end in disaster. One hilarious
moment after another occurs as a result of his tendency to dive in and fix problems
that either do not concern him or do not exist, and it is mainly because of Oliver why
I enjoyed Submarine so much. His obscure vocabulary and doggedness in using literal
words on a daily basis only made me warm to this character further, and there are
some great, carefully worded one-liners peppered throughout the book. An example
includes: ‘I spent the morning admiring my skin elasticity. God alive, I feel supple.’
Dunthorne balances this humour out however in other various scenes of the book; the
seriousness and depth to which Oliver’s thoughts extended to provoked deep thought
to me as a reader also: ‘once you’ve been through certain experiences, you may as
well accept that your life from that point on will be one massive Ferris wheel of the
same emotional trauma, relived and recycled, over and over.’ This whole section
really captivated me although I am unsure why, and there are many moments like this
in Submarine that are truly engaging.

Of course, the cultural aspects of the novel also cannot fail to be missed; Dunthorne
has included many of his own experiences written with ‘a microscopic view’, and
one of these is the Swansea setting where he grew up. Dunthorne stated however
that he ‘did not want to write a novel that captured Welsh culture’, and simply tried
writing a novel of adolescence pertaining to how it was for him. It was interesting
for him to say that he could not write about Swansea while he lived there, perhaps
because of the surplus detail it provided. ‘It wasn’t until I moved away that I could
look back and write about it’, he explained.

What struck myself and others I spoke to as I progressed further into the novel was
the actual title itself; by the time I reached the ending and realised there was no
submarine I was slightly confused, as in all honesty I was actually anticipating a
submarine coming into the narrative. I don’t know how that would have actually
fitted in, but Dunthorne pointed out at the reading that as a teenager you are inside
your own shell, in the centre of your own small universe, and he likened this image to
that of how it would similarly feel to be in a submarine. In my reading of Submarine,
this metaphor jarred with the ending of the novel; for his work to be well thought
out and carefully planned in its depiction of the highs and lows of adolescence, it
seemed like not a lot of effort or thought was put into the ending at all. This however
was exactly what Dunthorne aimed to achieve, and did not want it to entertain the
reader as the rest of the novel already had done. This lack of amusement correlates to
a sense of loss as Oliver comes of age by the end of the novel, Dunthorne describing
that ‘I wanted to create a scene which was slow, meandering and filled with unclear
answers…a glimpse of the adult world ahead.’

I was very lucky to meet the author after the reading and I found that he was a funny
and friendly person who I was easily able to have a conversation with. I asked him for
advice that may be useful to those developing and producing their own creativity and
material. He answered that you just simply have to get yourself into your work and
write; what is important is to get your thoughts and ideas on paper, and only go back
to edit and perfect it once you have completed the first draft. ‘Approach your work
with a Prepare to be Bad attitude’, Dunthorne explained. ‘Your writing will not be
perfect on your first attempt, but you have the time to make it perfect.’

After reading the novel I am eager to see the film adaption which has only just
been released in March. Dunthorne explains that it is slightly different to the book,
which was a good decision as director Richard Ayoade brought something new to
it. ‘What was massively important to me was that it stayed true to Oliver’ Dunthorne
stated, ‘which it did.’ Although widely praised by critics, it has a lot to live up to in
my estimation of the novel. Submarine is an accomplished, hilariously written work
that takes you back to your first love, worries at school and home and the coming of
age period in your life. It is guaranteed to keep you reading and laughing until the
final page, and will not disappoint.

Amy Ryan is a young writer based at York St John University.


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