Book Club LIVE: Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth Part 2

Home Lockdown reading

Stories are usually told in the past tense; the reader reads the past in the present and transports herself into the present of the story world. Deviating from the past tense adds emphasis—something different is happening, something strange. Adults predominantly uses the present tense for the narration.

A Life Less-Examined: the Pressure of the Present in Adults


I stare at it again. I try and recall the original inspiration; to be guided by that. It’s the least I can do. I interrogate myself. That’s what the mid-thirties should be about, after all: constant self-interrogation.

The sentences are short; the words are powerful, staring interrogating; the croissant is binned, uneaten.

Now, consider someone famous for his mindlessness: Bertie Wooster:

A cheerful fire was burning in the the grate, and to while away the time I pulled the armchair up and got out the mystery story I had brought up with me from London. As my researches in it had already shown me, it was a particularly good one, full of crisp clues and meaty murders, and I was soon absorbed.

The use of past tense(s) puts less pressure on the reader. It is more relaxed and unhurried. We are enjoying the moment, and waiting for disaster to unfold.

Unsworth herself explained that Adults had to be in the present tense because it is very frantic. It is immediate. Fast and furious. It is even exhausting to read. The present tense suited Jenny’s character—her brain is exploding on the page.

The use of the present tense in Adults limits thought to that moment in time and adds to a feeling of an unexamined life, but an excessively examined online presence.

When (Excessive) Mindfulness becomes Mindlessness

Mindfulness is described as ‘the practice of being aware of your body, mind, and feelings in the present moment, thought to create a feeling of calm’ in the Cambridge Dictionary. Newspapers from The Guardian to the Daily Mail have criticised the craze for mindfulness and written of the benefits of mindlessness. If mindfulness is all about the ‘present’, what is ‘mindlessness’? The Cambridge Dictionary gives two definitions:

  1. the quality of being stupid and meaning nothing: Sitcoms are generally condemned for mindlessness and tastelessness.

  2. the quality of not needing much thought or mental effort: I like these novels for their mindlessness.

Novels or sitcoms could easily be changed for social media as the target of derision. The personas on social media are similar to the characters in novels: neither are real; many are hugely influential on people’s lives.

Hashtags are obsessed over; likes and clicks are analysed and deconstructed. Small activities on social media require a huge amount of mental energy. Posts or comments are picked apart and deleted; emails are written and never sent.

In Adults, the mindfulness of thought in the present is proportionate to how mindless the activity might appear in the past.

Online appearances are over-examined; offline relationships are neglected. Decades of friendship is sacrificed for social media, yet cultivating her online personas is essential to Jenny’s job.

Jobs, Characterisation, and Plot

Unsworth said that with Jenny’s job she wanted to investigate the commodification of feminism. A feminist website that sells and sensationalises feminism for clicks is taking feminism away from its roots.

When Jenny's online life slows, she is fired. When she pitches outrageous, sensationalised garbage, it gets lots of clicks, and she is promoted.

Jenny’s best friend, you might think is the opposite of Jenny: a mother and a receptionist. Unsworth said, however, that the dichotomy between mothers and non-mothers doesn’t really exist—it’s something the patriarchy wants to enforce. For Unsworth, friendship is the core: she takes the tropes of RomComs and replaces romance with friendship. Equally she added that people don’t change after having kids, there’s not that divide.

Jenny’s mother, Carmen, is a failed actress and medium. Although Unsworth said that she is personally interested in Tarot, which she describes as a way of story-fying our experience, she also drew a parallel between the voices in the spirit world that Carmen communicates with and the online presences that Jenny interacts with.

Past experience perhaps confirms that social media for most people is similar to Tarot—fun distraction, but stupid to obsess over.

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