We asked Joe Dunthorne a few questions about his new novel.
How you were able to cut this scene from the book? In a novel about relationships, isn’t it important to show how the two characters meet?
Normally, yes. And in early drafts of the novel there was much more back story. But as I wrote the novel I realised I wanted to push my narrator over the edge as efficiently and ruthlessly as possible. And this scene felt like it was letting the reader off the hook, somehow, giving them a breather. I wanted the novel to be a short, sharp descent with no relief.
Why did you choose the name Garthene? Where did it come from? Do you think it’ll catch on?
I love this name! I first heard it because my sister knows a Garthine. When I had a reading in Cardiff recently, the real Garthine was in the audience. Her name is sufficiently rare that you only have to type her first name into Google to find her. For the novel, I was interested in a character with a name so directional that everyone she meets has to take a position on it. People reveal themselves in the way they love or pretend to love or avoid mentioning her name.
How would you quickly describe the relationship between Garthene and Ray?
Much of their early relationship is built on shared private humour. They enjoy saying things to each other that they wouldn’t say in front of anyone else. It’s the intimacy of inappropriateness – the thrill of sharing your unreconstructed self. One of the questions the novel asks is whether a relationship like this – that’s built on a certain amount of cynicism, of laughing at the world – can survive the transition into the necessarily boring and earnest realm of mortgages, home-owning and childcare.
Now that the novel is out in the world, do you miss spending time with these two?
I’m working on a TV pilot of The Adulterants so I am still getting my fix.
Is this chapter part of a sprawling, much larger director’s cut?
There are one or two more chapters that I feel sorry to have cut. There’s quite a fun set-piece at a baby modelling audition, for example. (I can confirm that it does feel quite creepy, attending a baby modelling audition for research. I went with a friend and her son and had to pretend to be his father.)
Before I knew Garthene’s name – before I even knew Garthene was a name – I carried her on my back through the trees along the edge of the lake, both of us sweating, her breath hot at my ear. We were being pursued by a kind young veteran named Raphael who wore olive green fatigues and sixteen-eyelet boots and shouted ‘I’m proud of you guys; you’re doing great.’ There were twenty of us in total, split into pairs. I admit that I had joined military fitness training with the explicit intention of experiencing mild trauma in the company of women my age.
Afterwards, as we sat in the dirt, in various shapes of weariness, Garthene and I watched Raphael high-fiving people as they left the park.
‘I thought the whole point was that he was going to abuse us,’ I whispered.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘He’s too nice.’
‘I want to be called a worthless worm. That’s why I signed up.’
Raphael was now holding a clipboard. He knelt down to give someone a direct debit form.
‘I’m pretty sure he’s never been to war,’ she said.
We walked out of the park together. I refused to ask her name or her job or where she lives. That’s the way it is now, with the hyperinflation of people’s expectations of romance. You can never ask a normal question.
‘Would you ever join the army?’ I said.
She thought about it. ‘You mean the real army? Or like the T.A.s?’
She had me at ‘the T.A.s’.
‘No, I mean front line. Combat. Service. I’m asking you if you’d kill for your country.’
The streetlights hung above us like sodium flares.
‘I could maybe drive a tank,’ she said. ‘I would need something between me and the people I was killing, otherwise it’d be too much.’
‘You could pilot a drone?’ I said.
‘I reckon so,’ she said. ‘All those little pixellated . . .’ A bead of sweat rolled off her left eyebrow, gathered speed as it ran down the wing of her nose, gaining weight as it went, entering her mouth at the moment she said ‘. . . combatants.”
The world turned slow-mo with trumpets. Life partner music.
After each session, we walked together to the bus stop. It became a running joke between us – our first joke – the ways in which we imagined Raphael was faking his military experience. He had this duffel bag with sew-on badges – one for the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, another showing a curved dagger – that we learned you could order from a website called dropzone.com. He had a waterproof notebook and waterproof pencil which we only ever saw him use for writing down people’s contact details.
‘In the heat of battle, the smell of sulphur, I held my dying friend in my arms,’ she said, ‘and took down his email address.’
I looked towards an imagined horizon, though we could only see the tops of heavy goods vehicles as they rattled down the Eastway. I spoke in the voice of a dying man: ‘Promise me you’ll send a message to all my starred contacts.’
She banged her fist against my chest. ‘You’ve just gotta tell me your password, buddy. Tell me!’
I looked up to the starless sky and croaked: ‘Cool guy on tour all one word.’
‘And with the knowledge that he had passed on this responsibility, his soul drifted away.’
We walked on, laughing.
It was the tang of bad taste, that these were jokes we would not feel comfortable making in front of our parents or our colleagues, that made the moment special.
A few weeks later, Raphael gave us a lift home in his boxy metallic Ford Cortina and we saw, in the footwells, a foot-long catheter tube and sterile wipes and white boxes with prescription labels. While in Afghanistan, he’d lacerated his bladder in a motorbike crash and now had a suprapubic catheter. Because the crash had occurred during recreational time, he didn’t get a full pension. And that’s why he was now doing military fitness three times a week, even though it was uncomfortable, running around with a bag of piss strapped to your thigh. He dropped us off at the town hall. We watched him drive away and then looked at each other.