The dominant flavor of a Jonathan Coe novel typically blends comic socialcommentary with a sentimental longing for a Britain that existed beforeMargaret Thatcher’s rise to power. In this regard, Coe has written against thegrain. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the same year he published thesecond of his nine novels, politics—in the sense of an activity that ordinarypeople might care about passionately—has by and large been a horribly passésubject in the UK. Coe has rejected that consensus, but only to recoverpolitics as an object of nostalgia—the only way it could be made palatable to manyof his readers.
For those unfamiliar with Coe, this might sound inexcusably earnest.But he is anything but dry. In these vibrant and ingenious novels, politics issomething that reverberates through all corners of national life. It is not asimple matter of policy. The spirit of the times is revealed in movies, TVshows, food, fashion, and music, all of which are more frequent points ofreference for Coe than literature. In his 2001 novel The Rotters’ Club, even the switch of a teenage band from prog rockto punk, “fuelled by sheer, unpolluted delight in trashing something,kicking something over,” appears as part of a destructive strain inBritish culture that will culminate in Thatcher’s declaration that “Thereis no such thing as society.” Politics, it seems, is simply a word forwhat we all do together.
Though it has a contemporary setting, the latest novel is marked byCoe’s habitual nostalgia. Behind the eponymous Maxwell Sim is a character madefamous in a BBC sitcom of the seventies, TheFall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The consonance between Sim and Perrin,men in crisis during epoch-making recessions, will resonate for British readersof a particular age. It is one note among many in the book suggesting thatthirty years of radical transformation in British society have brought nothingbetter in terms of innovation than GPS navigation or the designer latte. Butthe title, playing as it does on a fairly obscure allusion, hints also at thelimited appeal of a novel that otherwise has a lot to recommend it.
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is narrated by Max, and he, to put it kindly, isdifficult company. A middle-aged father of one, whose wife has recently lefthim after many sexless years, he is clinically depressed and on compassionateleave from his job in a department store. Freed from work, Max is condemned toisolation. His cellphone snubs him. His Facebook wall remains stubbornly blank.His email intray is a sump for spam. Communications technology mocks him withits zillion opportunities to connect. He momentarily escapes from the doldrumswhen recruited to take part in a publicity stunt for a start-up. Max’s missionis to deliver a shipment of eco-friendly toothbrushes to the Shetland Isles,the northernmost region of the United Kingdom. On his circuitous route, hewrestles with his past, learns how he was conceived because two London pubsshared the same name, and develops an unhealthy obsession with the tragicEnglish yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who died in his attempt to circumnavigatethe globe singlehanded in 1969. A quiet insanity beckons.
Periodically enlivened by stories from narrators other than Max(most importantly, his ex-wife and poet-manqué father) and occasionally veryfunny, the book works hard to keep a dull hero interesting. But Max’s voiceputs Coe in a straitjacket. Absent is the elegiac lyricism of the previousnovel, The Rain Before It Falls. In contrast, Max is a painfully diffidentnarrator. “The first thing I noticed about this woman—or thought I noticed… Does that make sense? … Does that seem over-the-top to you? Well, nevermind—it may be a little blunt” —these are typical locutions. On top ofthat, Max conceals a secret from himself and the reader so effectively thatwhen it surfaces at the end of the book it’s a bit of a letdown. I won’t revealwhat happens, but it is as unsatisfying as any case of deus ex machina.
These problems aside, the book has a formal elegance typical of Coe,who masterfully equips the best of his novels with trap-like ironies that snapshut on his characters without bending them out of shape. Still, it is a novelthat will speak most eloquently to a narrow tranche of readers familiar withthe minutiae of life in modern Britain. It’s tempting to see that asintentional. Like its hero, The TerriblePrivacy of Maxwell Sim is adrift in a world where communication andcompanionship are often at odds. It is a book in search of community. It won’tmake it onto many critics’ year-end roundups of “important” books.But among a small and not undiscerning audience this novel deserves to find ahome. As with the prog rock of which Coe is a fan, there’s something touchingand admirable here that raises this book above its shortcomings.