Joe Dunthorne’s third novel is short, poignant and very, very funny. Ray, The Adulturants’ not very reliable narrator, has charm and a quick wit — or so he believes — and he tends to deploy them at the most inopportune times. There is no situation so serious — getting caught in a compromising position with another man’s wife, getting arrested, enduring house arrest, getting publicly shamed on the internet, getting fired or meeting his pregnant wife’s lover — that Ray can’t make worse with jokes and a casual attitude.
Ray and his group of friends are Londoners in their mid-thirties making the awkward and long delayed transition from eternal adolescence to actual adulthood with children, careers (as opposed to jobs) and the dream of homeownership.
Ray is precariously employed as a tech journalist churning out semi-plagiarised puff pieces for websites. His wife, Garthene, is a nurse in an Intensive Care Unit and one of the few in their circle with a stable traditional job. She is also eight months pregnant which is causing Ray to ponder how he is going to face his new and unaccustomed role as paterfamilias.
The novel opens in the middle of a raucous party at the home of Ray and Garthene’s friends Lee and Marie. Garthene is working the nightshift at the hospital and Ray is at the party alone, desperately trying to catch the druggy and boozy vibe of his student days. When a drunk Marie flirtily explains her and Lee’s “arrangement” (they are each allowed to sleep with one person outside the marriage a year) Ray passively wisecracks his way into the spare bedroom with her.
Lee, it turns out is not as open-minded as Ray and Marie think he is and when he catches them lying in bed together Lee gives Ray a good thumping. Marie has broken the rules that state the sexual partner can’t be a friend and the act has to take place outside of London. For his part Ray clings to a technicality. “We didn’t take off our shoes,” he equivocates, “which made a difference, morally.”
Marie kicks Lee out and he moves onto the couch in Ray and Garthene’s tiny apartment, putting a strain on their already strained relationship.
The novel takes a more serious turn during a picnic planned to reconcile Lee and Marie. It turns out that we are in August of 2011 and Ray and his friends get caught up in the London Riots, the largest mass unrest in England in a generation.
The riots highlight the predicament of Ray and his group of friends. They have all been negatively effected by the lack of class mobility, the economic downturn and London’s housing market crisis, but they still hold on to their own sense of privileged entitlement.
Ray spends the rest of the novel making disastrous choices and ducking responsibility. Dunthorne pulls off the difficult trick of making Ray, a hopelessly petty and self-absorbed sad sack, into a sympathetic character. The humour in the novel is the very British cringe-worthy kind familiar from britcoms from Fawlty Towers to The Office.
Dunthorne’s humour though is more gentle and nuanced than these broader approaches. In his mid-thirties himself, Dunthorne has a good idea of what the first wave of Millennials are going through, facing adulthood without much preparation.
In a funny scene Ray and Garthene take refuge from the London Riots at his well-off Baby Boomer parents’ house in Suffolk and Ray seriously believes that his witnessing the looting and the burning cars puts him on equal terms with his parents’ experience of post-war rationing.
Ray’s insecurities and his desire to be hip lead to some great lines. Offered overpriced “English champagne” Ray decides that it tastes disgusting, “but in that particular, wealthy way that made me feel it was a personal failing rather than any problem with the drink.” At another point he feels guilty for not being trendily gay or bisexual. “Some of us are locked into our straightness, no key to the closet,” he laments.
In all, The Adulterants, is a knowing, playful and witty look at today’s “lost generation” in the same spirit that Evelyn Waugh skewered his own generation of bright young things nearly a century ago.
The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne, Hamish Hamilton (UK) Tin House Books (US) 192pp.