Joe Dunthorne has had a weird time of it. ‘Submarine’ was a runaway success of a first novel, and was made into a critically-acclaimed and cult film by Richard Ayoade. He’s released a poetry pamphlet with Faber and Faber (which is pretty difficult to get hold of.., anyone fancy a second print run?) and started on a ‘fantasy gangster novel’ for his difficult second book. He then gave up on this idea, and started ‘Wild Abandon’ – a wry/heartwarming look at family life in a commune, as the end of the world approaches. And once again, he’s written a quirky, funny and properly original book.
The novel’s premise is simple, but the wealth of characters complicates things and brings Dunthorne's controlled chaos to the forefront. Albert, eleven, and Kate, seventeen, live with their parents Don and Freya on a communal farm in South Wales, and as the end of the world approaches, the commune attempts to bring itself into the modern age, because numbers are down, and interest is falling. At the same time, secondary characters like Patrick and Isaac provide a backdrop to both the rest of the commune, and of the outside world, often providing foils to the main characters or complicating events with opposing viewpoints to the main cast. Whilst seemingly a bit dated, the commune exists next to the present day, and Dunthorne makes interesting points about seclusion, technology and youth.
In two books, Dunthorne has – well, he’d pretty much done it after one – carved his niche as a purveyor of weird teenagers. His kids are likeable, and funny, but they talk like prim adults and are quite strange. For example, Albert says, in a relationship breakdown with Kate, ‘It’s your boyfriend’s fault you’ve turned like this. I would like to destroy him’, and whilst Dunthorne’s books have that dark humour, he manages to move beyond the simply ironic, and say something profound. In ‘Wild Abandon’, he gets into the heads of Kate, Albert and Isaac to show the failings of the adults, who, by extension, exhibit a stubborn inability to adopt in the modern world. Kate’s slow but sure escape from the trappings of her upbringing – through her boyfriend, schooling and UCAS plans – show the importance of being yourself, and reaching your potential.
Whilst Kate can easily make plans to move away and can experience the modern world, Albert must stay in the commune, and despite being offered a real school, states ‘I don't have anything in common with people my own age’. The essentiality of allowing change and freedom in children is stressed by Dunthorne, who champions teen individuality. He satirizes communal life and the modern world, introducing altered attitudes to the commune itself, and differing opinions within the community. What Dunthorne does brilliantly is take disparate and varied elements and characters, and fine-tune them into a varying third-person narrative, all of which come to make a fine point – everyone should reach their potential without restraint. At times, he struggles with the sheer number of characters whose stories must be rounded off and completed, but then I considered the book more focused and plot-driven than ‘Submarine’, so you win some, you lose some.
As the book hurtles towards its conclusion, characters separate and come together, and Dunthorne makes some surprisingly profound and salient points about capitalism and community. ‘Wild Abandon’ is a comedy, but intensely moving, and is a relaxed and controlled novel on family, innocence, childhood, maturity and potential – about living for you, and living for others. The highlight of the novel is the Kate and Albert sibling relationship - one reviewer said that considering so many have them, true sibling relationships are rare in the novel - and here, Dunthorne captures the love, distance and trust of said relationships perfectly. For a clever and witty summer read, pick Dunthorne – a naturally talented writer.