Wild Abandon

My first experience with the work of Joe Dunthorne was watching the movie adaptation of Submarine. The movie is a bit off-kilter, slightly trippy, and seemingly coloured by remembrance. It’s also a bit uneven, and I was left not terrifically impressed. It was, then, with an open mind but a small amount of trepidation I began to read Dunthorne’s new novel, Wild Abandon. What I got was the usual outcome of the book vs movie duel: something much, much better on the page than on the screen.*

Wild Abandon follows the lives of commune, or their preferred term “community,” members in Wales. Don and Freya are a middle-aged married couple, and half of the creating force behind the community. Janet, their school chum, and Patrick, former landlord and provider of startup capital, round out the founders. The community is in decline, after a decade or so or humming along. New members are hard to find, there aren’t many children.

Don, with his degree in film studies, is ever the actor reciting lines. He’s described as often seeming to have rehearsed things is his head, many times, before speaking. “Don preferred himself in front of the lens. In the same way that a miserable holiday, when viewed through its photographs, becomes a stream of joyful moments.” In a flashback sequence, he is away from the community and gets the call his wife is giving birth to their first child, Kate. He relishes the role of the immediately expectant father, racing back, practicing what he’ll say, dramatically, to the cop that pulls him over for speeding (and is saddened when it doesn’t happen). That he doesn’t make it in time to see Kate born is representative of his character. Freya is responsible in birth, as well as in death; she’s been dubbed the community’s “abattoir,” because she’s the only one who can actually kill and butcher animals. The sexual politics between Freya and Don are interesting: it’s the woman who works hard, and gets down to what has to be done, because there’s little choice; the man lives in the mind, making speeches and directing, while doing very little himself. This relationship isn’t atypical in literature or life; I’m thinking of the Great Male Author trope, with his long-suffering wife behind him, making financial and household arrangements while the artist needs his think-time.

Kate has her sights set on going to University elsewhere in the next year, and 11-year old son Albert is too smart yet not socialized enough. Kate escapes the community to the home of her boyfriend’s parents. Like most teenagers, she wants only what she doesn’t have while living with her parents (and this is echoed by boyfriend Geraint moving to the community later on). She seeks what she thinks will be a more interesting sort of discord.
Considering that Kate had never spent any time in a suburban home before, she had a highly developed understanding of what to expect; during her upbringing, her father had encouraged her to make the most of his film collection, which had a lot to say on that subject, including The Graduate, Edward Scissorhands, American Beauty, and The Ice Storm. One of the community's well-told stories was of Kate, aged ten, setting an alarm for herself to wake at 3 a.m. so that she could come downstairs and watch Poltergiest, the definitive suburban horror film.
In fact, what she finds is that life is pretty much humdrum no matter where you run to.
The disappointing news from her time in Three Crosses was that, where she had hoped to find suburbia's dark and seething underbelly, she had found its potbelly of contented boredom.
( In this way, Dunthorne reads a bit like a gentler, less satirically-minded Tom Perrota.)

Everyone in Wild Abandon is a bit like Kate, moving and shifting, enjoying the new but eventually searching for a new place that might be just a bit better: Kate eventually gets into Cambridge; her parents leaving London squats for the wilds of Wales; Patrick leaves the commune to once again work a full-time job and have an apartment; Freya wanting to leave Don and get Albert into regular school; Geraint joining the community. It’s reminiscent of the constant ebb and flow of city/suburban populations. Albert, not having the possibility of self-determined mobility at his age, turns to an Apocalypse scenario centered on a black hole for comfort. It’s child’s logic; if he never leaves his known world, the only possible change is for the world to end. Kate is the embodiment of that black hole—as her sphere increases (going to school outside the community, then leaving for the Three Crosses suburb, then going to college) the more Albert feels his world is ending.


Dunthorne has just the right descriptive simile or metaphor handy at all times. This isn’t as easy to pull off as you might think; the descriptor has to be contextual, so much so that it gives the reader a perfect idea of the scene at hand, without distraction. Dunthorne has this down to an art, and it’s an integral part of his style. This might be annoying in the hands of a lesser writer, but I only noticed the comparatives so often because of how perfect they were. Early on in the novel, one of the founding members of the community, Patrick, has a paranoid episode after ingesting both marijuana and mushrooms. Fleeing the community on a cold night in just underwear, he tears through the brush, coming out into a suburban street in an empty new development. As he succumbs to hypothermia he falls onto the “road shaped like a thermometer -- a turning circle at one end.” Not only is this an accurate visual, it’s loaded with symbolism. The thermometer, of course, speaks of temperature and Patrick’s loss of body heat. The choice of a cul-de-sac, though, also represents an ending, the bottom of the bag, or in Intervention speak, rock bottom. Patrick quits the community, and gets clean (after a last hurrah of enjoying hospital sponsored morphine drips). Later, Kate takes her university qualifying exams:
There was something enjoyable about the tarot of turning over an exam paper: a whole gymnasium full of people reading their fortunes.
Again, this is perfect on a couple levels. Exam results do tell the future, but on a smaller and more physical level, the turning of the papers is indeed very like turning over tarot cards. It makes the moment slower than I remember when I took my exams, and more lovely. Wild Abandon is like that sometimes, making the reader stop sometimes, over the small moments, looking at the small parts of life in a new way. That’s what good literature does.

Kate’s first memory of cartoons is watching “Steamboat Willie.” She’s struck by the pile of potatoes Willie is tasked to peel, a pile that never seems to end or get any smaller. It gives her nightmares. The petite-bourgeois lives in Wild Abandon are similar in that, not getting ahead, just making lateral movements. (The commune, while at times hardscrabble and always ad-hoc still falls into this category, having been created by a property owner and three holders of liberal arts degrees). Comfortable survival is the same on the commune as in the suburbs. The novel’s title, perhaps, relates to those small moments which stand outside just-living, like the two rave parties depicted (an accidental one in the past, a party for Kate’s birthday that got out of hand, and the one that climaxes the book, which is engineered to generate interest in the community). Perhaps, though, the title is sarcastic, because no matter the location, being middle-class has conformity clauses.

Reviewed from advanced reading copy, courtesy Penguin Books Canada.
*Yeah, I get that they’re different works. **
** And I’m glad I haven’t read Submarine, actually. The Guardian review did that thing that The G&M review did with The O’Briens, talking about how the first book was much better. Sometimes, it’s good to start with the second book?

1 comment:

justalillost said...

Good insights to the imagery! I didn't catch the thermometer/cul-de-sac bit - and I love that you pointed out the exam/tarot card comparison.