Joe Dunthorne’s debut novel, Submarine, was a skewed Bildungsroman, lightning in textual form. The voice of its teenage narrator was brilliantly involving, edging close to lunacy but convincingly so. It was made into a slightly disappointing film, released this year, in which there was a lot of sitting around in beautifully lit desolation but no narrative drive, which highlighted one of the problems of the original book. Dunthorne’s debut poetry collection focused on similar themes – the weirdness of childish perception, the muddledness of youth.
Continuing these ideas, and the debut’s Welsh setting, in Wild Abandon we are in a commune – although the residents hate that word, with its connotations of free sex, drugs and not washing. They prefer “community” – and they don’t mind so much about the drugs. Known locally as “the Rave House” (because of a “bangin’” party that once happened there), it’s actually boringly normal, defined by graft and without a whiff of luxuriant underarm hair (although the notional leader, Don, does have a beard with its own ecosystem. Its shearing provides one of the book’s whimsical vignettes).
Dunthorne allows his characters to wander around, slipping in and out of our view as if we were watching through a lens. We have Don, whose habit of smacking his lips before kissing his wife sends her fleeing; there is Patrick, harbouring a secret lust; little Albert, who thinks the world is going to end; and his sister Kate, our heroine.
Wild Abandon is frequently amusing, particularly when concerned with Albert. He is a prodigy along the lines of Submarine’s hero, Oliver; when Albert’s on the phone to a television producer he exults: “My father says your industry is inherently evil.” The moment when Patrick teaches Albert about the horrors of advertising provides one of the most enduring images in the book – the house has a television with a curtain that is closed during commercial breaks. It’s a cack-handed compromise, like much else in the commune.
Yet Wild Abandon has a distracting quality as the figures we are observing keep coming in and out of focus. Sometimes it feels as if the lens is entirely fogged over. The notable lack of compelling plot, which was forgivable in Submarine because of its linguistic flamboyance, becomes a looming absence in this novel. Kate leaves the commune, with little fuss from her family (apart from Albert), and takes up with a suburban family in the hope of finding some Blue Velvet-like psychosis; her father and mother, unbelievably, seem to care little. Albert indulges in apocalyptic fantasies. Patrick’s wife goes to live in the woods, and the commune prepares for a rave. These events are flat, disconnected, done by people who have no character outside their comicality.
There are also one or two repetitions of background detail that seem to have escaped editing; imagery from Dunthorne’s poetry is recycled (the hieroglyphic marks of a carpenter on the underside of a table). Without the zesty joy of his debut, this novel founders in its own quirkiness.
Wild Abandon, by Joe Dunthorne, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£12.99, 256 pages