Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Review of the Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim: Broken Britain


Sometimes I think Jonathan Coe is one of the most subversive English novelists working today. Ostensibly his novels look very straightforward contemporary comic works - sometimes set in a specific recent historical time: the Rotters Club, 70s; What a Carve Up, 80s; the Closed Circle 00s. Yet his biography of the idiosyncratic experimental novelist BS Johnson (brilliant, incidentally) and his involvement in discussions on the future of the novel give a sign that Coe's work is trying to aim beyond the "cracking great read" idea of the book.

I thought his last novel the Rain Before It falls pointed in this direction most clearly: an examination of a woman faced with all sorts of abuse in Society it also integrated an innovative structure and an examination of modern classical music as well. It engaged very little with contemporary comment but sought to make more universal points.

This combination is struck again in this work although at the start of the work it doesn't feel like this. Indeed my initial thoughts were that Coe had retreated to his earlier work with a very broad brush approach to current social issues. A bit like a bad observational comedian he makes points on spam emails, cappuccinos that are served too hot and the contradictory nature of friends on Facebook. But this is misleading in fact perhaps Coe uses this to lure the reader in to a narrative about an alienated, lonely, broken man who through a journey discovers some truths. And at the end, which I won't give away, it is arguably one of the most experimental passages that Coe has ever written.

The "unreliable narrator" is Maxwell Sim as he outlines his own breakdown and his voice is a difficult one. Part of the problems of the early part of the work stem from this I think as he is an unengaged man who loves the structure of motorway service stations, idealises chain restaurants and finds difficulty expressing his feelings or even describing anything (a point he makes in the first chapter) and dislikes books. This is risky as it relies on the reader sticking with him even though it seems he has nothing to say. I remember feeling similarly about the narrator in Alexei Sayle's underrated novel Overtaken, who was much more dislikeable (deliberately) than Max Sim. On the other hand it is clearly not Coe's own voice which in some of his other works I think intervenes in a not very subtle way.

Of course this develops - he is a keen observer of humans and their various schemes which ultimately lead to his own catharsis. The narration is also broken up by 4 pieces of writing - a letter, an essay, a short story and a memoir - written by 4 other characters who will all have significance. Through these writings Max gains his self awareness. This episodic use of different forms of writing is quite a common trait of Coe's but he uses it to full effect here. He also labels each one of the elements - following the Structure of Eliot's Four Quartets - which is significant in itself.

This makes the novel sound poe faced and academic which it is miles from - it is very funny, hilarious actually, in places and moving ultimately. The title "Terrible Privacy" is good as well as we seem to value privacy talk of it as a human right but not recognise the isolation which it can also bring. So society never really thinks of privacy as "terrible". A common theme is the inability of people to communicate even in a wired world.

Max's journey is across Britain as he recovers or rather doesnt from depression seemingly brought on by the break-up of his marriage, for some half-arsed business promotion which requires him to drive to the Shetlands going via Birmingham, the Lakes and Edinburgh. The use of a road trip to discover home truths is not a new idea in Art but the structure and link with the other texts give this one originality.

The ending seems a little pat - revolving around Max and his relationships - and you can see it coming from about two thirds through but even this is teasing of the reader - because even after the revelation Coe pulls his experimental writing trick- this turns your feelings on their head, if feelings can have heads!

I felt some similarities with Franzen, the keen eye for contemporary detail and how it interacts with the most intimate issues people have, the unreliable voices and the use of different types of text within a novel but the ending is most definitely Coe-style.

There are some nods to BS Johnson particularly in the memoir part (written by Max's father) with a character who bows to pagan ritual, which BSJ does. It also has a parallel with the life of doomed sailing fraudster Donald Crowhurst , contemporary Artist Tacita Dean who did work on Crowhurst and as always with Coe the nature of writing and the novel particularly with his ending

Ultimately Coe is such a confident writer so although I think all these themes are there they stream by as you turn the pages because it also is a "cracking good read"!

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