Books

“Warmth Plus Dread”

Jenny Offill interviews Joe Dunthorne about sympathetic characters, parenthood, and single-vowel nouns.

Joe Dunthorne and Jenny Offill.
Joe Dunthorne and Jenny Offill.
Photos by Tom Medwell and Michael Lionstar.

The ending of Joe Dunthorne’s new novel, The Adulterants, is so good I had to go back and reread it immediately to try to figure out how he did it. So far, I have discerned only that his brilliant idea was to make it both funny and sad at exactly the same time. Not successively, but simultaneously. Indeed, the whole novel is full of these quicksilver emotional shifts; it ranges page to page from wrist-slittingly dark to lightly optimistic and back again. And there’s plot! Lots of it actually. Exciting twists and turns, I would even venture to say. I’d describe it as a coming-of-age story about a guy who was supposed to be done coming of age a long time ago. Ray Morris is 33 with a pregnant wife and an easy, stupid job writing tech columns. He spends a lot of time hanging out with his more attractive friends and trying to buy a shitty apartment that is somehow still miraculously within the city limits of London. When things start to go wrong, he realizes there are some problems that being funny and clever can’t solve. When I describe it that way, it sounds like Revolutionary Road, but with millennials and more jokes. Pretty accurate actually. I’ll let it stand. —Jenny Offill

Jenny Offill: I’ve read reviews of The Adulterants that describe the main character, Ray Morris, as “unsympathetic,” which seems to refer to the fact that he, like many humans, is at times self-serving or pitiful or filled with dread. Maybe I’m tipping my hand here, as someone whose characters are sometimes described the same way for the same reason, but do you find the delineation of sympathetic versus unsympathetic to be a useful one?

Joe Dunthorne: My problem with those terms is that I often feel sympathy for a character precisely because they are unsympathetic. Lots of my favorite books are basically a behind-the-scenes guide to what it’s like to be someone who makes horrible mistakes. Revolutionary Road is great for that. We get to see inside the characters’ heads, moment by moment, as they betray their own best intentions.

Book cover: The Adulterants.
Tin House Books

With this book, I wanted to create an “unsympathetic” character—someone many readers might like to see suffer—then push that suffering so far that the reader starts to regret it. That shift from having fun watching someone’s downfall to thinking Oh no, we’ve gone too far—I quite like this man, after all. I hope that the reader’s initial enjoyment makes them feel, in the end, complicit.

Offill: You are usually described as a comic novelist. Does this please or rankle you?

Dunthorne: I am both pleased and rankled! I am happy to hear that my books have made someone laugh but a needy part of me also wants to plead: “Is that all? Did the laughter not ring with the hollowness at the heart of all human relations?” In The Adulterants, I want the narrator’s jokes to seem innocent at first—joyful, even a little gratuitous—but as the novel progresses and things disintegrate, I hope his jokes feel increasingly like a survival mechanism until, in the end, he’s got no other way to cope with his own loneliness and fear but to try and find it all funny.

Offill: You write poetry as well. What poems do you know by heart or have read over and over?

Dunthorne: The poem I return to again and again is “Snow” by David Berman. I love that it feels simple and open while remaining mysterious. It manages to have human warmth and existential dread side by side, as in these stanzas:

When it’s snowing, the outdoors seem like a room.

 

Today I traded hellos with my neighbor.

Our voices hung close in the new acoustics.

A room with the walls blasted to shreds and falling.

Offill: That’s an excellent formulation—warmth plus dread. What are some of your other favorite things that swing between the two?

Dunthorne: I like this newly coined category of TV show: the sadcom. BoJack Horseman, for example, is more believable and heartbreaking than a funny cartoon about a talking horse has any right to be. It manages to feel emotionally raw and real while still being completely ridiculous.

Offill: This idea of what feels real in art is always interesting to me. The Adulterants is set around the time of the London riots in 2011. Were there any difficulties in finding yourself so tightly bound to a real-life event?

Dunthorne: For the first few years while writing the book, I was very careful to be faithful to real events. But the more I developed Ray’s character, I realized that whole swaths of the city are invisible to him—he only sees the parts of London that are “for him”—so his vision of London and the riots would be necessarily narrow and inaccurate.

Offill: Did you set any parameters for this novel about what could go into it and what couldn’t? Do you ever use constraints or generative devices when you are starting a poem or story?

Dunthorne: With this novel, the only constraint was Ray’s worldview. But in general, I like to use restrictive structures. I had a definite Oulipo phase when I got into writing stories and poems that only use one vowel. It became quite obsessive. I started seeing single-vowel words everywhere. Taramasalata. Gangsta rap. Even now, whenever I cycle past Star Hand Car Wash and Car Park in Dalston, I feel a frisson of excitement.

Offill: Please call your next novel Star Hand Car Wash and Car Park. I will preorder it. One thing I’m curious about is that this one was originally much longer. When and how did you decide to streamline it?

Dunthorne: There were a few moments. Firstly, I had the feeling that the existential heartaches of a 33-year-old middle-class tech journalist weren’t going to sustain an 800-page opus. Secondly, I came to terms with the fact that I like brisk, tightly plotted fiction, shameful though it is to admit. Thirdly, I realized that this was a downfall novel and so it became easy to cut things out. Everything had to work towards my narrator’s destruction.

Offill: How big an imaginative leap was needed to enter into this narrator’s head?

Dunthorne: Well, I don’t want to say that my wife and I had a child in order to help me fact-check how it feels to be a father, but that was definitely an unexpected upside. Parenthood had been the most challenging part of Ray’s personality to get right. I spent a long time interviewing my good friends who were already parents, asking them: How does it feel? Do you really love this person unconditionally? Are you still the same people you were before you had children? I think I was secretly doing research for my own life.

Offill: Would you describe your narrator as an antihero or even that highly suspect creature—the man-boy?

Dunthorne: Antihero I’m fine with but man-boy and man-child are definitely suspect.
Aren’t we all still children, at some level? Do we want to rid ourselves of childishness? One thing parenthood has taught me is that being an oracle of wisdom and adult solidity is a performance, while rolling around on the carpet making gargly noises comes absolutely naturally.

The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne. Tin House Books.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.