Author: Joe Dunthorne
My Rating: ★★★★ (3/5 stars)
Precocious doesn’t begin to cover fifteen-year-old Welsh boy Oliver Tate, protagonist of this offbeat coming-of-age novel by Joe Dunthorne. But even with his booming IQ, Oliver isn’t exempted from toiling to trudge the dangerously rocky roads of adulthood. He naturally dons the confidence of a self-styled social scientist and arms himself with a cautiousness that being an explorer of an emotional landscape requires. With these in hand, plus a couple of printouts from various instructional websites, Oliver plummets into the adult world to complete two self-assigned missions: (1) get rid of the reasons ungluing his parents’ marriage and (2) discover what makes Jordana Bevan—his pretty (and pretty oddball) muse—tick.
In Submarine, Dunthorne takes us into one roller coaster of a ride that anyone who has passed (or is currently in) the transition of being callow to grownup would be familiar about. A mishmash of laugh-out-loud comedy, valuable introspections, and teenage inanities, Submarine is a true portrait of modern adolescence that isn’t easy to forget.
I’ll make no bones about it: I found out about Submarine through Arctic Monkeys vocalist, Alex Turner. It is his music that backdrops Richard Ayoade’s big screen adaptation of this novel. Sheer curiosity pushed me to search for what’s really behind the poetic subtleties of the songs “Piledriver Waltz,” “Stuck on the Puzzle,” “It’s Hard to Get Around the Wind,” and “Hiding Tonight.” And I want to find these out not from the movie but the original source material.
The book is a mixed bag for me. I quite liked its sharp crudeness, its unashamed hormone-driven absurdities, and its uncensored representations of things we prefer to keep behind closed doors. With that said, I did enjoy the all-access pass into Oliver’s mind. This is mainly roots from my penchant for believably bright heroes. His amusing quirkiness—akin to of many others I’ve read in other books—is a passport straight to my heart. But unlike other precocious protags, he managed to carve a special space in it for one reason: his intelligence is coupled by a funny kind of coldness. Dunthorne expertly conveys this to the readers as only superficial. Oliver scientifically speculates about and explores emotions of other people, but never does he do it to himself. His thought processes are basically robotic comedy, but the readers could see easily through him via his actions and offhand reactions.
Nonlinear narration is no problem with me. However, there are certain parts in the book that swerved off a little too far from the path that their cohesiveness is sacrificed. I understand that it’s a part of Oliver’s personality-tinged narration devices, but I thought Dunthorne could have a little more control on it. But yeah, perhaps it’s only a pet peeve.
The book is overall a crudely charming treat. With an array of literally new words (Oliver is practically a human dictionary and thesaurus), this romp in an angsty young adulthood is a remarkably twisted contribution to a gamut of formulated YA tales gracing our bookshelves nowadays.
Oh, and of course: it’s a love story too, but one that doesn’t even get near the cheesy side. That said, I’m going to end this review with one of my favorite quotes from the book:
“She’s the only person I would allow to be shrunk to microscopic size and explore my body in a tiny submersible machine.”
Oh, so Oliver.