Submarine, By Joe Dunthorne

Novels about teenagers have changed since Adrian Mole's day. Meet precocious, obnoxious, 14-year-old Oliver...

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The Independent Culture

It was a terrible fact of my teenage years that the closest that contemporary fiction came to a truthful exploration of my inner life, was a book written by a woman as old as my mum, and no doubt as much with my mother in mind as me: Sue Townsend's middle-class, middlebrow classic, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾. So it is with a certain amount of envy that I recommend to today's youth Joe Dunthorne's excellent debut novel. It's filthier and cleverer than Mole, and doesn't mind letting you know it.

Oliver Tate is an egotistical 14-year-old, set on losing his virginity with the pyromanic, eczematous Jordana before it becomes legal, and happy to join in the bullying at his Swansea comp of Zoe Preece, aka Fat. (In fact, Oliver points out that Martina Freeman is fatter than Zoe, but "if you call Martina fat, she will push you against a wall and grab your balls. For this reason, Zoe has been appointed fattest girl".) Oliver does, however, write Zoe a self-help pamphlet on how to fit in, ending on the note "I will not stop bullying you until someone else stops first. That's the way things work."

As well as being a wordy little sod ("Flagitious", "Autarky" and "Nepenthe" are all chapter titles, all helpfully defined) Oliver is also an expert on his parents' marriage. He keeps track of their sex life by monitoring the dimmer switch in their bedroom, looks up his father's anti-depressant medication on the internet and listens in to his mother's phone calls on the upstairs extension.

Yet for all his vaunted perspicacity (my word, actually, though it's a worry that I find myself in competition with a fictional character less than half my age), Oliver has his moments of acute emotion-blindness. He extends his "treat 'em mean" campaign towards Jordana even after her mother is diagnosed with a brain tumour, and there is a wonderful wrong-end-of-the stick scene in which Oliver follows his mum and her ex-boyfriend, Graham, to a tent by the surfer beach at Llangennith.

Dunthorne's writing is very self-assured, though he is wise to keep his ambitions in check. The plot is never allowed to overshadow the rich comedy of Oliver's voice, and this does leave the book stuck between Adrian Mole and Adam Thirlwell's Politics, a mixture of the cosy and the canny.

Nevertheless, the wonderful, Day-Glo certainties of adolescence have rarely been so brilliantly laid out, especially the way the brave new world of sex becomes just another confirmation of Oliver's centrality to life in general.I hope I'm not giving too much away by quoting the line, "I watch as she slowly guides me inside as though feeding a crumpled note into a change machine." And if that doesn't hit the spot, how about: "Now that I smell the way I do, I will not be washing again. My fingertips have the kick of permanent markers"? Nice.

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