Submarine by Joe Dunthorne

submarine_penguin_coverIf the journalists writing for the Observer, the Independent, the Guardian and every other paper and literary magazine – from whose reviews someone somewhere selects all those quotes that fill the back cover and the first couple of pages of the average English-language novel – wouldn’t feel the need to compare every single coming-of-age story to the Catcher in the Rye, then perhaps I wouldn’t feel the need to start all my posts about coming-of-age stories with saying: no, this novel is not the new Catcher in the Rye, either.

So, here we go: Submarine is not the new Catcher in the Rye. The atmosphere, the peculiar teenage-feeling and the humor are all totally different here, and this novel doesn’t feature that unique, unmistakable, poignant teenage angst which is characteristic of Salinger’s novel. And I hazard a wild guess: Submarine will never be a wildly quoted reference point in the genre of teenage-novels. (Speaking about coming-of-age stories set in the 1990s, I would say that The Perks of Being a Wallflower has a better chance to become a classic someday, but I wouldn’t bet on this either – it’s a good book, but probably not timeless enough.)

Okay, now that we’re through with the obligatory „let’s compare this to the Catcher in the Rye” bit, I can finally say that Submarine is a very good novel. (Fortunately, it’s a proper teenage-novel, not some young adult book.) The protagonist is 15-year-old Oliver, living in Swansea. He’s not exactly a loser, but he’s not a hotshot either, and his major accomplishments are that he has a terrific ability to come up with conspiracy theories all the time, and that he has an awesome vocabulary. The story is about how Oliver tackles the „usual” difficulties arising in the life of a teenage boy: the first „serious” relationship and the first sexual experiences; the problems in school; the crisis in the family; and so on.

It’s possible to write well about these topics both in a serious and in a comic manner, and because Joe Dunthorne mostly excels in the comic genre, and not in the dramatic-traumatic-tragic one, Submarine isn’t the kind of book that punches you in the stomach (if you want a teenage-novel like that, I highly recommend M.J. Hyland’s novel, How the Light Gets In, which is an extraordinarily good book, and I mention it here exactly because it’s my secret mission in life to persuade everyone to read it). So, anyway, Submarine is not like this at all – I haven’t seen the movie version but if I made my own movie out of it, it would be a darkly and richly comic, (self-)ironic film because this novel is simply hilarious.

Oliver forever finds himself in burlesque-like situations (or he creates them for himself), and I can never take the conflicts of the novel too seriously. Despite all this, I don’t feel as if the author was (over-)simplifying the anguish of being a teenager – it’s more like that he writes about it with an irresistible charm and humor.

And I like his protagonist a lot. But it’s not only that I like him – I find his behavior authentic, I feel that it’s indeed possible for a 15-year-old boy to think and act the way Oliver does, and in general: I believe it’s possible for teenagers like him to really exist, and basically, this is all I need to be able to like a teenage-novel.