Review of “Wild Abandon”, Joe Dunthorne, TLS, August 19th 2011


This is a brief review of an entertaining second novel by Joe Dunthorne. It didn’t quite have the success of Submarine, which was a pity, since in many ways the focus expanded quite effectively. Some tendency towards journalistese (see the Happy Mondays quote I mention below) it was a very effective comic novel that did a certain justice to its characters. With thanks to Maren Meinhardt for sending me the full published text.

Joe Dunthorne’s first novel, Submarine (2008), depicted a Swansea teenager’s comically sex-obsessed, self-dramatizing existence and his tragic attempts to keep his parents together. In his new novel, Dunthorne broadens his canvas to a commune in South Wales, but the focus remains on growing up, family life and marital breakdown. These, the novel suggests, are equally painful in unconventional families and in nuclear ones. Blean-y-llyn is a secular, non mystical exercise in communal living, conceived in the early 1990s by Don Riley and his companions. The Welsh name is not significant since all the communards are English, and it is known to the locals as the Rave House after a legendary fifteenth birthday party for Don’s daughter, Kate, which turned into an all-night affair.

The opening scene, in which seventeen year-old Kate and her eleven-year-old brother Albert have a shower together – it is the only way to get Albert to wash – suggests the eccentricity of the Riley ménage, in which Freya, the children’s mother, is increasingly alienated from Don. While Kate leaves every day to attend a sixth form college, Albert, who feels “puberty’s greasy palm on his shoulder”, is still schooled in the commune, with only six-year-old Isaac for company. Sensible Kate is one of those exasperated daughters of ostentatiously countercultural parents, but Albert has absorbed the apocalyptic beliefs of Isaac’s mother Marina, a serial commune-dweller and a believer in the upcoming cosmic dislocations of 2012.

Don Riley is a monster of righteousness and ill-judged humour. In one excruciating scene he tells his unwilling eleven-year-old son how he lost his virginity: “he leaned down to Albert’s ear and whispered conspiratorially in a tone that he hoped would show his son that, one day, the two of them could be friends. ‘She had a climber’s body but alpine tits’”. Also disturbing is Don’s use of the Personal Instrument, a self-built device for the focusing of consciousness, as an initiation for the commune’s children into adulthood – he inflicts this modified motorcycle helmet on Albert as a desperate and futile attempt at control. At times the larger-than-life Don threatens to dominate the book to the detriment of its wider themes.

Dunthorne creates sympathetic adolescent characters. Kate’s alienation from the commune reaches a crisis point, and she leaves to stay with her boyfriend Geraint and his nice, average suburban family – local television news producer dad, devoted and supportive mum. Having grown up on a diet of films depicting bourgeois life as a repository of hidden dysfunction, Kate expects dark secrets amid the mown lawns and plasma screens, and some of Dunthorne’s most acute humour exposes the limits of Kate’s apparently clear-eyed world-view. There are some false steps – a long expository section dips into Sunday supplement generalizations (“Black Monday revealed the vulnerability of the stocks markets; the Happy Mondays revealed the quality of drugs coming from the continent”) and the final rave seems set up for a sentimental resolution. Fortunately, a powerful last scene is able to reconcile Kate’s new maturity, the altered dynamics of the Riley family, and even Albert’s millennial anxieties, and Wild Abandon comes to a satisfying close.


Preferring soiled banknotes to new 

A little snippet from the Institute for Money Technology and Financial Inclusion  blog , taken from an article promisingly titled “Micro Insurance Claim Payments through Pre-paid Cards: Technology and Regulation Driven Financial Inclusion in India” I found this finding on the valued placed on tangibility and how trust is indicated by the evidence of prior use fascinating – and surely reflects a phenomenon seen in other contexts; the reassurance of not being the first.

An interesting finding was that people often preferred soiled banknotes to new banknotes for fear of counterfeit currency. This emphasis on tangibility and trust based on physical signs of repeated use explains in part why mobile money has not taken off as a mode of payment and why some did not take as well to the pre-paid cards. A female respondent from a village near Varanasi said, “I don’t believe in new notes. The MFI agent once refused to accept them because the metallic part [the machine readable security thread and electrotype water mark] were damaged in the new currency note I had as part of my fortnightly deposit. The new notes have not been used before and I don’t know if they are genuine. I think many of my friends share this feeling too.”

“A Panoply of All Possible Futures” From “The Zahir” by Jorge Luis Borges

Next to the Anthony Burgess quote I previously posted, this is my favourite literary passage on money 


Sleepless, possessed, almost happy, I reflected that there is nothing less material than money, since any coin (a twenty centavo piece, for instance) is, in truth, a panoply of all possible futures. Money is abstract, I said over and over, money is future time. It can be an evening just outside the city, or a Brahms melody, or maps, or chess, or coffee, or the words of Epictetus, which teach the contempt of gold; it is a Proteus more changeable than the Proteus of the Isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the hard, solid time of Islam or the Portico.

Adherents of determinism deny that in the world there is only one possible event, ed ist an event which could have happened; a coin symbolizes our free will. (I did not suspect that these “thoughts” were an artifice against the Zahir and a first manifestation of a demoniacal power.) After long and tenacious musings, I at last fell asleep, but I dreamed that I was the pile of coins guarded by a gryphon.

Anthony Burgess on decimalisation.

This quote made me wonder about the cognitive impact of decimalisation. There seems to be a consensus that cognitive challenging activities help to reduce and/or delay dementia, and I wonder, aside from the poetic and cultural losses Burgess enumerates, could the change from the rich arithmetic complexity of l. s. d. to the simplicity of the decimal system have had some kind of epidemiological effect? And now, with the abolition of cash openly mooted , the corresponding loss of the calculation of change – which I assume is one of the commonest conscious arithmetic calculations we make – well, who know what will happen?

Probably not all that much. Or possibly a lot. I haven’t been able to find solid empirical research or much theoretical discussion of the topic.

Anyhow, here is Anthony Burgess from his 1990 autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time  on decimalisation:


“Before the shameful liquidation of the British penny into a p, there had been an ancient and eminently rational coinage, with twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound. This meant divisibility of the shilling by all the even integers up to twelve. Time and money went together: only in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is there a ten-hour clock. Money could be divided according to time, and for the seven-day week it was only necessary to add a shilling to a pound and create a guinea. A guinea was not only divisible by seven, it could be split ninefold and produce a Straits dollar. By brutal government fiat, at a time when computer engineers were protesting that decimal system was out of date and the octal principle was the only valid one for cybernetics, this beautiful and venerable monetary complex was abolished in favour of a demented abstraction that was a remnant of the French revolutionary nightmare. The first unit to go was the half-crown or tosheroon, the loveliest and most rational coin of all. It was a piece of eight, a genuine dollar though termed a half one (the dollar sign was originally an eight with a bar through it). It does not even survive as an American bit or an East Coast Malayan kupang. Britain’s troubles began with this jettisoning of a traditional solidity, rendering Falstaff’s tavern bill and ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ unintelligible. I have never been able to forgive this.”

Entertainingly enough, while searching for this quote online to save me having to type it out, I came across this page on the Royal Mint Museum’s website  – which quotes the “beautiful and venerable monetary complex” and nothing else!