Joe Dunthorne on cliché,
adulting & coming of age
Joe Dunthorne was born and grew up in Swansea. His debut novel, Submarine, was translated into twenty languages and adapted for film by Richard Ayoade. His second, Wild Abandon, won the Encore Award. His latest is The Adulterants. A collection of his poems, O Positive, was published by Faber & Faber in 2019.
Ahead of The London Book & Screen Week event, in which Dunthorne will discuss coming-of-age cult fiction, spanning classics such as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series, as well as the evolution of the genre at large, with Lisa Owens and poet Leena Normington at the Groucho Club, I spoke to the author about coming of age, cliché and what it means to be an adult.
Before we talk coming-of-age fiction, I wanted to ask about the first line of The Adulterants, which reads ‘. . . And I think it’s a problem with our idea of innocence.’ Where did that line come from?
That’s one of those first lines where the first line came first [in the writing process], and I don’t want to say the novel was written to match that first line, but I never tried to over-analyse what that line implied for the rest of the book.
The line is overheard at a bougie London party. I’m still fairly green to the publishing industry in London, but it is the sort of ‘wanky’ conversation you hear knocking about.
Yeah, I guess it’s just off the page, or before the book starts implicitly, and is exactly that conversation that you’ve now experienced having.
I do, as a wanky person myself, love the publishing industry, and enjoy schmoozy wine events, but… There’s no but, really, except you do have the slight sense that you are the people everyone else in Britain hates.
What do we mean when we call something a ‘coming-of-age story’?
I think it’s changed (or maybe I just lack the depth of knowledge to know that it hasn’t changed), but my sense is that, traditionally, the coming-of-age novel was more clearly a teenage thing, or younger.
Obviously, Catcher in the Rye is the ultimate touchstone for literary coming-of-age for most people. Thinking about it ahead of this event, my feeling is that coming of age now, and I’m speculating about whether this is to do with current political conditions — millennials struggling to attain the markers of adulthood that their parents might have, for example — but it seems possible now that you can write a coming-of-age novel about someone in their thirties, which, when I looked at it, there’s actually quite a few novels that do that.
The Adulterants is, essentially, a coming-of-age story, even though its characters are 33. A book I just read by Luke Brown [titled Theft], the protagonist is 33, he’s essentially coming of age. Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, arguably, is a coming-of-age story in which the narrator doesn’t even come of age, but she’s 26. So it’s a sense that it’s possible to delay the arrival of ‘adulthood’ indefinitely, it seems — and as a result of that, the coming-of-age story is now incredibly broad, and can take on people at any stage of their life.
You mention several markers of coming of age: one of them might be maturity, or success in the many forms you can attain it; the other, loss of innocence –
It’s a completely ambiguous idea anyway, isn’t it? What do we even want from coming of age? Do we want to be wise, mature people, or do we just care about ticking off a list of pre-agreed markers: homeowning, or a long-term relationship, or whatever it is? Ultimately, you can be a child, you can be the most immature and undeveloped human, and have achieved all those things. So obviously it’s a problematic term.
Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in Catcher in the Rye, uses the term ‘phoney’. Is that what you’re describing here?
Yeah. The traditional story is that it’s about someone working out how to bring themselves into the ‘phoney’ adult world, and how they are going to accept that compromise. In the purity of youth and the black-and-white view you have when you’re young, how do you bring yourself to live in the compromised, messy, disappointing adult world? And that’s about understanding yourself, so that journey, from having a very clear-eyed but ultimately naïve view of the world to having a more messy but truthful one, seems to be a more appropriate way of talking about coming of age.
It struck me that the young characters of your books are sometimes conceited, often comically so. They’re trying on different personas and have notions about themselves, but to say that we as adults are exempt from that seems a little presumptive.
You’re hoping that your arrival in maturity, you may still be conceited, but you have some sense of your conceitedness. Whereas in my books, the younger characters don’t have that outside perspective on themselves.
In Wild Abandon, Kate offends her little brother Albert’s friend Isaac in an exchange about his mum. He asks her flatly ‘Why don’t you like my parents?’ and she reaches for a cliché, which convinces him. She says ‘Everybody here is your parents’. Albert then runs with the idea of being an adult, parroting what he’s heard in the commune, which includes snatches of abuse he doesn’t fully understand.
There’s a fraught relationship between innocence and cliché in this very short episode of your book. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it felt disturbing — and it’s something you see children do in real life. I wonder how you see the relationship being between cliché and innocence here?
That’s really interesting — I think you’ve analysed that better than I could, that’s fascinating. It just makes me think of… Well, I’ve just recently finished the Ben Lerner Topeka School novel, which is quite a lot about learned ideas of adulthood, and the patterns or language that a child adopts in their performance of, whether it be masculinity or femininity, and how it’s quite possible that those masks don’t ever develop, and in fact you go into real adulthood and you’re still ostensibly playing a part that you clumsily learned when you were a kid.
I guess Albert in that moment is parroting, and he doesn’t really know what it means, but you’re hoping, in growing up, that he’s going to come and have a more critical take on those phrases. But maybe he won’t. I guess that’s the job of coming of age, that you should learn to be critical of what you think of as adulthood.
It’s interesting you bring up the Ben Lerner book. Houman Barekat, in his review for The London Magazine, mentioned this infantilisation in millennials, stunted economically or for other reasons. The phenomena he describes is the verb ‘to adult’, ‘adulting’, that’s become a thing now. It implies ‘I’m having to perform my duties of being a grown-up today.’ What do you make of that?
That’s the verb that needed to exist, didn’t it? I guess people have that sense all the time, but now they’ve got a word for it.
Cliché is, when you’re young, a novel thing. I wonder whether coming of age lies in the understanding cliché, accepting that one must live with it, and this being a kind of compromise in our language which reflects our development.
There’s a really interesting discussion of cliché, I think it comes from John Ashbery — the idea that, rather than regarding cliché as a worn-out piece of language, you regard it as a well-worn piece of language that has its worn-down quality because it’s been used so happily and by so many people. It’s brought them comfort and it’s been useful. I guess, as a writer, I’m automatically trained to be allergic to cliché — you’re supposed to be a cliché hunter, and bullshit detector, and all that Hemingway stuff, which I subscribe to — but I find it really interesting to think of clichés in those terms.
In the Ben Lerner book, the cliché is that someone’s been ‘seen’ in that contemporary sense: he or she ‘made me feel seen’, or saying ‘that made me feel seen’. That’s become a cliché, but the argument in the book is that it is the most appropriate phrase for that sensation, and so it’s fine — the fact that it’s overused is just a matter of it being the right words.
Oliver Tate, when Jordana breaks up with him in Submarine, says something along the lines of ‘Ok, let’s trade in clichés’ — which seems quite an adult thing for a young person to do. There’s a kind of maturity in that which plays into his precociousness, as a young person who’s obsessed with language.
That’s right, because it takes a while to notice that a cliché is a cliché. The first time you hear a cliché is the first time you’ve heard it, so how are you supposed to know that it’s already a well-worn piece of language? I guess it takes a certain amount of obsession to have got to the stage to be a 15-year-old boy who’s even aware that he’s trading in clichés.
In terms of my writing, when I approach a cliché I’m always looking to spin it or draw attention to it, and in a way that’s a poet’s function as well. It’s quite a good trick for poetry book titles – you take a cliché, but when it’s blown up to the size of the cover of the book and given loads of white space it changes its meaning and becomes something more interesting, and I guess that’s how I approach it. There’s a line in Submarine, quite indicative of Oliver’s approach to clichés: ‘I love you more than words, and I’m a big fan of words.’ So I guess when I use a cliché, I at least try to develop it or do something with it.
Do you see that as more a function of the poet than the novelist? Is it something a poet has to be more attentive to that a novelist could get away with?
No, I think novelists are very hard on clichés, but maybe it’s more poet-y of me to include them, but then mess around with them, which is what I tend to do more; refreshing it, rather than ignoring it totally.
I wanted to ask you about your own upbringing. There’s a moment in the first chapter of The Adulterants when Ray gets punched in the face. No one’s truly come of age, he thinks, until they’ve jumped through this ‘life-hoop’. Have you jumped through this particular life-hoop?
Yes, I jumped through it twice. Once, I jumped through it as a child — Chris Holt, I believe, put me through that particular life-hoop — but that was maybe in primary school. It didn’t happen again for probably another 20 years.
It’s a beautiful description, his mouth filling with the taste of coins. I had wondered whether this was a Proustian moment for you.
Yes, exactly. Plunged back into Terrace Road school, break time.
I think for Ray in The Adulterants, the life-hoop of, well, being punched in the face is a kind of masculine, macho life-hoop, but for all that Ray would like to be a boundary-pushing millennial, he is in his deepest self quite traditional, so it is children and a long-term partner and a home of his own and all these very standard markers.
Obviously it’s different for women growing up than it is for men. How did you approach writing the character of Kate, for example, in comparison to the young male characters?
I’ve got two sisters and, essentially, I was channeling them. They’re both older, and they’ve got quite different personalities. I have quite different relationships to both of them. The younger of the sisters was quite a tomboy and just a nightmarish older sister from my perspective, because she was a brilliant international footballer when she was 17, and better at everything than all people, quite thuggish and liked to beat me up (we have a very good relationship now, she wouldn’t mind me saying that).
The older sister was a lot more caring and very creative, I remember her always taking me on these amazing improvised storytelling journeys where she’d turn the house into a kind of Tolkien-esque Shire-land where she’d play a cast of a hundred different characters, she was very, very imaginative. I hadn’t really written about either of my sisters in fiction, and so Kate ended up being a hybridised version of both my sisters, among other things. She can be quite tough on Albert sometimes, but she’s willing to riff with him and go on his journeys with him.
You mentioned in one of your interviews that you feel most like an adult when you’re doing selfless community-orientated activities. It’s also something you skewer in your books. Growing up, were you part of a commune-type community, as in Wild Abandon?
The commune stuff is all fiction, all just research really. My upbringing was much more traditional than that. My parents are both university lecturers, and we just lived in the middle of Swansea and it was a normal-ish middle-class upbringing.
Coming back to your thought of becoming an adult through selfless acts of community spirit, that’s what I remember my dad doing, he was very much always going to meetings of the local quarry group to discuss how they were doing to regenerate the run-down quarry at the top of the hill and he still is really into that. So maybe I’ve just internalised the sense that, once you’re old, you start going for the community meetings.
Adults can also be very cynical about communality, that there’s something suspicious about it. Maybe that’s a product of rampant privatisation, and the cult of the individual post-Thatcher.
That actually there are no truly selfless acts, and everyone is just doing what they need to do to make themselves happy.
Yes, perhaps. Is that something that Ray would subscribe to?
I think so. It’s a question of ‘Is that wrong?’ What’s the problem with people behaving selflessly, if secretly selfishly, because it’s making them happy? What’s the difference? Do we expect our volunteers to be doing things out of the purest motives? Or is it OK for them to do it because it makes them feel good about themselves? I feel like if we only had people doing that kind of thing because they had pure hearts and wanted to help, then we’d probably lose a lot of volunteers.
I wonder how the internet affects these relationships. Social anxiety is rocketing, mental health is on shaky ground, especially with young people today. You’ve not long been a parent. What do you make of the world your son is growing up to?
Well, it does scare me, because I know how weak and susceptible I am to those things myself. Just thinking about social media or whatever, it’s so clear to me how weak my brain is in the face of these highly-tuned addiction mechanisms. I can’t remember which writer told me Twitter is comparable to the experiment they do with rats and sugar pellets, where the most addictive pattern of all is variable rewards. So if a rat doesn’t know how many times he or she has to press the little button to get a sugar pellet — they could get a pellet after 1 or 100 presses — that sense of not knowing is the most addictive form of reward possible. And that’s exactly what Twitter is. You load it up, and are you going to have no mentions or are you going to have 50? Your brain quickly rewires to become obsessed with it. And we’re still at the early stages of social media: how much more effective, more capable of brain-rewiring will those technologies be by the time my son is 15?
Do you find it affects your own writing? Do you have to ‘unplug’?
Yeah, all those clichés. I have Freedom, and the anti-porn settings on my phone set to block Twitter and various other websites. And my wife is the only one who knows the access code, and she won’t tell me, and all those things.
Which is a regression to a need for parental control. They’re called parental locks, aren’t they?
Exactly. I’ve had to outsource my adulthood to my iPhone!
I have O Positive here, and it ends with the poem ‘After I’ve Written My Important Poem’. I wondered what your ideal ‘Most Important Poem’ would look like, what you’d envision it to achieve, and whether that would be a coming of age for you as a poet?
That’s a really good question. I guess the spirit of that poem is a kind of ‘fuck you’ to the sense that poets have a level of spiritual, ethical authority which sets them apart from ordinary humans, and the idea that you’re striving to write this great poem which will forever be written in the hearts of humanity just seems irritating to me, and pompous, and false mostly, but yes, that poem is kind of saying ‘I hope I never write it, I hope it’s always just ahead of me’. I prefer to be free and joyful in this space beneath the great poem, rather than having to be some figure of knowledge.
You’re not gunning for the laureateship, then…
Well, look at our laureate now – he’s a great example of someone who doesn’t. He’s playful, his work’s various. I’m sure he’s written important poems, but I don’t think he wakes up in the morning and thinks ‘this poem’s going to change the world.’ He’s extremely in love with language and he has a lot of fun with it.
I have no inherent problem with writing an important poem. It’s the desire to that I find suspicious, someone sitting down and wanting to do that, that makes me think ‘this is about ego and not about writing.’
This also eschews the label of poet, right? Someone who proclaims themselves a poet, or this priestly figure of authority – a spiritual figure in the T. S. Eliot sense, which is presumably something you don’t subscribe to?
But you know, thinking of T. S. Eliot, it gets applied retrospectively to the work. I was just in Margate, where T. S. Eliot wrote some of ‘The Waste Land’, and there’s a great quote from him writing to Auden or another editor… ‘Just spent the morning in a little shelter by the beach, writing a few lines’ — what turned out to be a third of ‘The Waste Land’ — ‘I’m not sure if it’s any good, it might be OK, I’ll give it to Valerie first and see what she thinks.’ And that’s so beautiful, that’s someone who just scribbled down a few lines and thought it was OK, and that was ‘The Waste Land’. Which seems exactly the way you would hope to arrive at a great, important poem.
Eliot himself claims the poet is a sort of priestly figure of authority, I think, but, what you’re saying, is that this is actually in contrast to his practice. In other words: that you couldn’t be in the process of writing and also perceive yourself as that figure.
Right. I don’t know enough about Eliot to say if he thought of himself in that way, I can imagine him thinking of other poets like that, but the sense I got was that in the moment of writing, it’s not helpful to be thinking of yourself as a sage.
The line is ‘poets are older than other people’, that they’re part of some sort of lineage, but perhaps this is only obtained after the fact.
I don’t buy that. Maybe I’m not a poet… It just makes me suspicious.
Because of the culture of self-labelling, on platforms like social media? Unless you say you’re such-and-such, you can’t be searchable under those terms, and therefore don’t exist — it’s the threat of phoniness?
Yes, and maybe that’s a hardwired thing from childhood or teenagehood, when it’s all about the bands you like. Are they for real, are they sell-outs? All that wrangling you do, particularly at that age, when you’re trying to work out who is true and who is fake.
The artists you love are the people you believe are doing it in a totally authentic way, and maybe that might be part of what makes me suspicious of that now. As a writer, I don’t want to be part of some mask that you put on, where you pretend to be a visionary.
Joe Dunthorne is the author of the novels Submarine (2008), Wild Abandon (2011) and The Adulterants (2018), as well as two collections of poetry published by Faber.
Joe will be discussing coming-of-age cult fiction with Lisa Owens and poet Leena Normington on March 11th at the Groucho Club as part of London Book and Screen Week.
For more information and tickets, visit the London Book and Screen Week event page:
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