Saturday, 29 October 2011

Wild Abandon Review

by Tom Dunn

It’s perhaps not surprising that Joe Dunthorne’s summer release, Wild Abandon, has attracted the steady attention placed upon it over the past few months. Following hot on the heels of Richard Ayoade’s accomplished adaptation of Dunthorne’s own debut, Submarine (for my review of that film, go here. Yes I'm shilling myself out), his latest novel offers the same awkward humour of puberty that coupled that last offering, but does so as part of a wider jab at modern family values, distorted through the lens of “communal living.”

Wild Abandon takes place in the fictional community of Blaen-Y-Lynn, headed by Don, Freya, and their children Kate and Albert, the former of whom, at seventeen, is aching to break free of the confines of the farm and experience society at large, whilst the latter, quickly approaching twelve, feels that between his sister’s rebellious tendencies, his father’s delusions of grandeur and the growing strains this puts upon his mother’s wellbeing, the end-times prophesied by one of the farm’s more colourful characters are getting ever nearer.

Rather than focusing on a single figure, as in Submarine, Dunthorne now relies upon an energetic shift between multiple perspectives, jumping between both the core family members and their friends and lovers with ease, thus giving the novel a rather episodic feel that at its best emphasises the lack of understanding breaking down this family, and in turn their community, and at its worst reveals itself as a trick for cheap laughs. Thankfully, the latter is rare, as for much of the time this novel is genuinely funny, revelling as it does in providing an ironic take on teen rebellion – Kate’s distrust of her parents’ lefty ways occasionally emerges as a conservatism she would be ashamed to admit to, whilst histrionics find themselves erupting from a sixty year old pot junkie. The limits of this style of narration are tested however in the surprisingly sombre climax, lacking a sufficient emotional build up for all but the most empathic of readers (i.e. not me, but possibly Jesus Christ or Ghandi).

At its core, this is a fairly typical story of a family unit’s tragicomic breakdown given a fresh lick of paint through what is ultimately a novel gimmick – throughout its 240 page run, Dunthorne fails to truly elevate his presentation of the community beyond its admittedly amusing differences with suburban life, a comparison that threatens to offer a damning critique of both sides of the coin before retreating somewhat in the face of just how reassuringly mundane suburban life – captured in the harmlessness of Kate’s boyfriend and his parents - supposedly is. Nevertheless, the novel’s core question – how can man try to bludgeon society to his liking when he can’t even control his own family – is an amusing one, and finds union with last year’s highlight in comedy literature, Ian McEwan’s Solar. It is perhaps more than telling that today’s social climate is producing stories revelling in the inability of ambition to marry itself with nobility or sheer mental clarity. Funny, occasionally incisive, and at times surprising touching, Wild Abandon won’t blow your socks off, but for a good British comedy, you could do a lot worse.