Wild Abandon – Joe Dunthorne

If there’s any kind of popular-consensus hierarchy for the perceived literary worth of different types of novel, then it probably goes something like this:

  • Literary fiction
  • Historical fiction
  • Crime
  • Young Adult
  • Chick-lit (/Romance)
  • Sci-fi
  • Horror
  • Fantasy
  •  and lastly: the comic novel.

Okay, so the mid-table placings are up for debate and largely dependent on the caprice of the individual reader (note: this list is based on nothing more than my own observations; I offer no proof of its efficacy beyond my hardy assurance that years of talking/reading/writing about books has led me to its order.  It seems to me that this is how most people would catalogue the implicit value of the dominant genres of novel (incidentally, my personal value-list would look nothing like this one: for one, the whole exercise of hierarchy is kinda pointless bullshit)); but what’s certain is this: litfic always seems to be king, whereas Comedy usually lies ignored and dirty at the bottom of the heap.

‘Twas not always thus: but the literary comic novel as a staple of the canon has become somewhat of an historical idiosyncrasy, relegated to classrooms/lecture halls and the study of times gone by (Tristram Shandy, Gulliver’s Travels, Jerome K Jerome etc. etc.).  Not since P.G. Wodehouse has there been anything like a national comic novelist, and today Comedy has an unstable place within literary fashions: analysis of pop-culture phenomena is increasingly becoming a trendy norm at many universities, but there must be a thousand essays submitted on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Superman or Lady Gaga for every one written about Terry Pratchett, or Tom Holt or Christopher Brookmyre.  There were even raised eyebrows when self-proclaimed “comic” novel The Finkler Question won last year’s Booker Prize, as if the very notion of comedy ever being implicitly literary was some kind of new-age critical innovation.

I expected there to be impassioned debate, or at least a campaign to return comedy to the citadels of literary discussion (after all everybody loves an underdog, right?), but try as I might to unearth comic literature’s cult online following, all I can find is silence and empty space.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the conspicuous absence of a Wikipedia page for Joe Dunthorne (not only is this a good reflection of my point, it was also a frustrating impediment to my pre-blogging research!)  Is the book media’s unwillingness to engage with the comic novel due to a general paucity of half-decent stabs at the genre, or is it because there’s a tendency for modern literary criticism to take itself waaaay too seriously?  Well, if you still haven’t worked out where I’m going with this, allow me to be explicit: it’s the latter. My proof? Joe Dunthorne’s awesome new comic literary smorgasbord Wild Abandon.

You might think that I’ve just bigged the novel up to an improbable degree, and if so this next sentence isn’t going to help matters – but stick with me, I promise I’ll soon get onto why this book is so good.  In abstraction, the premise of Wild Abandon is strikingly similar to Dunthorne’s 2008 debut Submarine (Richard Ayoade’s film of which has recently been reviewed by my friend Thom, here): it’s a bildungsroman set in rural Wales that casts as its de facto main character a social outsider whose parents are drifting apart.  But don’t worry; this brief gloss is where its similarities to Submarine end.  Kate Riley is a home-educated, morally precocious but nonetheless delightful seventeen-year-old who’s lived her entire life on a communal farm with an eclectic menagerie of both people and animals.  Although the novel is exclusively constructed in the third-person past tense, the narrative is predominantly sympathetic to either Kate’s point of view, or her younger brother Albert’s – an endearing yet troubled youngster whose preoccupation with eschatological theory is at once comic in its absurdity and disquieting in its depth, a conflict which is responsible for many of the novel’s most stand-out comic moments.  (As an aside: the comic being one of those slippery concepts which often loses its power when subject to laborious description and critical autopsy, I’m not going to focus too much on what I found funny and why I found it thus; similarly, comedy’s success is so dependent upon its appeal to a specific subjective that any following statements I make that certain passages are funny must be understood to contain a sub-text caveat of ‘in my opinion’.  Suffice it to say: I laughed a lot – at one point I was so beset with hysterics that I had to put the book down and regain my composure before I could continue.)  The crux of the novel’s dramatic conflict is Kate’s decision to leave the commune (and, by extension, its ways of life) and settle with a more socially conventional family.

Wild Abandon, then, is characterised by a kind of inverse estrangement, wherein conventional literary clichés of the quest for individuality are reversed, toyed with and transgressed. In a dramatic volte-face of bildungsroman norms, Kate, rather than running from society, runs to it in order to complete her teenage rebellion and journey of self-discovery, seeking out a societal model which to us may be bland and de rigueur (a house, a washing machine, a family, a routine), but to her is a paradise of normality that (in her opinion) she has been cruelly denied.  In a kind of negative parallel to this is the story of Kate’s boyfriend, who runs from home (and, ironically, Kate) to join the communal farm that Kate has just fled: a much more standardised act of teenage rebellion which is reflected in his unostentatious, bland personality.  The extraordinary, witty, vivacious Kate’s flee toward normality is juxtaposed to great comic effect with her boring, vapid boyfriend’s escape to the rustic fantasy of the commune, yet this image is also shot through with an unsettling pathos – and time and time again in Wild Abandon the individual’s quest for happiness and fulfilment is marred with the unpleasant consequences of familial disintegration and loss.  In order to calm their internal maelstroms and discover a personal happiness, Kate and her boyfriend must pull themselves apart.  Likewise Patrick (the financial keystone of the commune) has to abscond, no longer able to cope with the despair of decades-long unrequited love he feels for another member of the community.  Finally, this theme of inversion is rounded off by the separation of Kate’s once idealistic parents (the founders of the community) in an act of parting which bathetically undermines the entire credo of the collective agenda – the community should have been a coming together, but instead becomes a tearing apart.

If I had to categorise Wild Abandon’s sense of humour, I’d probably describe it as the comedy of pathos.  It is strikingly funny, but the laughs aren’t sold cheap: their price is a kind of emotional damage inflicted on both characters and reader alike.  Joe Dunthorne doesn’t exploit the situation of the communal farm to make cheap jokes, nor does he ridicule characters who’re experiencing hard times; instead he converges comedy with tenderness and fragility to create a comic depth more rewarding and complex than you’d expect.  For example, the first time Kate seeks-out a member of the community after fleeing, she is misidentified as a thief and very nearly assaulted by Patrick.  This intruder scene relegates notions of standard societal fears of robbery into the realm of the comic (a continuation of our idea of inversion); the sequence of pretend machismo and put-on bravado that precedes this is hilarious, but there’s also something unsettling about the misidentification of Kate, as if once she has left the walls of the community she is altered in ways so significant that she is no longer recognisable – even to those who love her most.  Once outside the walls, she always will be.

Boundaries (both physical and metaphor) form the predominant imagery of Wild Abandon: the novel even begins with the unlocking and opening of a gate, a symbolic invitation to the reader (as outsider) into the weird world of the commune.  Joe Dunthorne takes great pains to explain the specific topographic layout of the communal farm, and the lucid focus on walls belays their symbolic significance.  Whether it’s the translucent glow of pollytunnels, the claustrophobia of a basement toilet, or the sharing of a bathroom – boundaries and the points at which they are crossed always mark significant moments in the novel.  Kate’s relationship with her parents is, physically, demarcated by her bedroom wall, and whether she is hearing sex, music or arguments, the wall is always the medium through which the message is transmitted.  On a more figurative level, her bedroom wall represents the disconnect between Kate’s own modern world view, and her parents’ more idealistic philosophy.  Likewise Patrick (who lives in a geodesic dome) finds a way to lock himself inside the walls of his home (an unusual act for a member of the commune); an action that carries specific metaphoric reference to both his unrequited love and drug addiction: the wall that can’t be breached.  Supplementing this theme is the decision by Kate’s mother (Freya) to leave the mansion at the heart of the commune and build a mud-hut type dwelling; literally putting up walls between herself and her family.  It’s telling that the last time Kate’s parents have sex, Freya is leaning out their bedroom window, a boundary with loaded metaphoric significance – yes, they are having sex; but she is already half-way through the aperture, half-way gone; and that she fantasises about sex with a stranger at this point only cements her desire to leave.

Which brings me to my final point: that of failed escape.  Whether it’s Kate’s determination to run away, Patrick’s desire to get-over his unrequited love, or Freya’s need to leave her husband: designs on escape are always frustrated as some force tugs the community back together, suggesting the walls of this family aren’t so easily scaled as its members would like.  As well as being charmingly comic and deeply moving, this cycle of escape and return is unpredictably ambiguous, leaving the reader (and the cast) uncertain as to how things will eventually play-out.  The ending is especially striking: it may be a loving practical joke, or it might be the end of the world!

Right, I’ve waffled on for quite long enough.  I hope I’ve managed to get-across what was my initial reaction to Wild Abandon: that this is a comedy of substance, worthy of your attention.  The jokes are coloured by pathos, and the themes of familial tension add depth to what could so easily have become a run-of-the-mill situation comedy.  But here the pathos augments the humour, rather than detracts from it.  Wild Abandon stuck a great big middle-finger up to my prejudices about the comic novel, and I can only hope that it stands as a forerunner in a re-emergence of comic literature.  Well done Joe Dunthorne.

Maybe I should write that Wikipedia page…