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“Very, very funny. There are many contemporary writers who can make you laugh, but Coe is one of the few whose comic set pieces do that and feel like miniature works of art.”
“A compelling, poignant read. . . . Coe cleverly plays with the reclusive-in-plain-sight notion and pokes gentle fun at our society’s love affair with modern gadgetry.”
“Funny, acerbic and, most of all, a novel that could not have been born at any other time than the present.”
“An amiably lunatic journey into the unknown. . . . Coe’s satirical eye is as dependable as ever.”
“A smart satire of materialism and modern life. . . . Coe is a funny writer, and it's a testament to his skill with character that for all of his hero’s maddening faults and failures, Sim never wears out his welcome. . . . Much like its targets, the book stubbornly delivers moments of humor and humanity.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Most entertaining. . . . A parable about the feeling many now have of not being in control of their own story.”
—The Independent (London)
“Cunningly plotted, extremely well-written and very, very funny.”
—The Telegraph (London)
“Exceptionally moving. . . . [It tells] us something about loneliness, failure and the inability to cope that we haven’t quite read before.”
—The Guardian (London)
“Clever, engaging, and spring-loaded with mysteries and surprises.”
—Time Out London
“Coe’s voice, spoken through Max’s perspective, effuses the novel with an easy, understated and satirical sense of humor that is a joy to read. . . . An excellent and entertaining take on how our countless methods of modern communication are making it harder to truly connect.”
—The Daily Texan
“[Coe] gives us witty and tender humanity, and reminds us that while the winners write the history, it is life’s losers who have the best stories.”
“Masterly. . . . [Coe’s] eye for the details of contemporary life remains as sharp as ever.”
—Daily Mail (London)
“[A] beguiling combination of picaresque comic adventure, meditation on the idea of meta-narrative, and thought-provoking reflection on the place of social media in our lives.”
The lonely life of an everyman who might as well be called a nobody is the subject of the popular British author's ninth novel (The Rain Before It Falls, 2008, etc.).
Late-40-ish Max Sim, on leave while "recovering" from depression from his job as a department store's customer liaison officer, is estranged from his disapproving wife, Caroline, and his daughter. Despite an array of computerized and other devices that offer connection to everywhere and everyone, Max seems eternally on the periphery of his own story. In fact, we learn about the experiences and influences that have formed him from the testimony of other people. A girl whom Max admires tells him the (real life) story of Donald Crowhurst, the yachtsman who entered a round-the-globe race and promptly disappeared (Max senses an immediate kinship). Caroline, a writer who despairs over Max's indifference to culture, contributes a mordant fictionalization of a disastrous family vacation. A school essay written by a childhood friend's sister, and a confessional memoir penned by Max's absentee father, a would-be poet living in Australia (whence Max returns from a visit at the novel's outset), complete the array of judgmental perspectives on our antihero's many, many failings. The story's central action is Max's car trip to the Shetland Islands, as a rep delivering a shipment of eco-friendly toothbrushes to a client. It's a ruefully comic plunge into the unknown, during which Max appears to form a relationship with the voice of his car's "satnav" (GPS navigational system); so it goes, in the brave new world of instant communication. It's a risky road for a novel to travel, especially when a postmodernist-metafictional dénouement and ending underscore this book's peculiar challenges to the reader. Still, like the hero of many a BBC-TV comedy, Max carries on, and may, like the cockroach, outlast all the "normal" people who keep their distances from him.
Not for every taste, but a significant building block in Coe's adventurous and distinctive oeuvre.
The dominant flavor of a Jonathan Coe novel typically blends comic social commentary with a sentimental longing for a Britain that existed before Margaret Thatcher's rise to power. In this regard, Coe has written against the grain. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the same year he published the second of his nine novels, politics -- in the sense of an activity that ordinary people might care about passionately -- has by and large been a horribly passé subject in the UK. Coe has rejected that consensus, but only to recover politics as an object of nostalgia -- the only way it could be made palatable to many of 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 is something that reverberates through all corners of national life. It is not a simple matter of policy. The spirit of the times is revealed in movies, TV shows, food, fashion, and music, all of which are more frequent points of reference for Coe than literature. In his 2001 novel The Rotters' Club, even the switch of a teenage band from prog rock to punk, "fuelled by sheer, unpolluted delight in trashing something, kicking something over," appears as part of a destructive strain in British culture that will culminate in Thatcher's declaration that "There is no such thing as society." Politics, it seems, is simply a word for what we all do together.
Though it has a contemporary setting, the latest novel is marked by Coe's habitual nostalgia. Behind the eponymous Maxwell Sim is a character made famous in a BBC sitcom of the seventies, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The consonance between Sim and Perrin, men in crisis during epoch-making recessions, will resonate for British readers of a particular age. It is one note among many in the book suggesting that thirty years of radical transformation in British society have brought nothing better in terms of innovation than GPS navigation or the designer latte. But the title, playing as it does on a fairly obscure allusion, hints also at the limited 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, is difficult company. A middle-aged father of one, whose wife has recently left him after many sexless years, he is clinically depressed and on compassionate leave from his job in a department store. Freed from work, Max is condemned to isolation. His cellphone snubs him. His Facebook wall remains stubbornly blank. His email intray is a sump for spam. Communications technology mocks him with its zillion opportunities to connect. He momentarily escapes from the doldrums when recruited to take part in a publicity stunt for a start-up. Max's mission is to deliver a shipment of eco-friendly toothbrushes to the Shetland Isles, the northernmost region of the United Kingdom. On his circuitous route, he wrestles with his past, learns how he was conceived because two London pubs shared the same name, and develops an unhealthy obsession with the tragic English yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who died in his attempt to circumnavigate the 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 very funny, the book works hard to keep a dull hero interesting. But Max's voice puts Coe in a straitjacket. Absent is the elegiac lyricism of the previous novel, The Rain Before It Falls. In contrast, Max is a painfully diffident narrator. "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, never mind -- it may be a little blunt" -- these are typical locutions. On top of that, Max conceals a secret from himself and the reader so effectively that when it surfaces at the end of the book it's a bit of a letdown. I won't reveal what 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 snap shut on his characters without bending them out of shape. Still, it is a novel that will speak most eloquently to a narrow tranche of readers familiar with the minutiae of life in modern Britain. It's tempting to see that as intentional. Like its hero, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is adrift in a world where communication and companionship are often at odds. It is a book in search of community. It won't make it onto many critics' year-end roundups of "important" books. But among a small and not undiscerning audience this novel deserves to find a home. As with the prog rock of which Coe is a fan, there's something touching and admirable here that raises this book above its shortcomings.
1. On a superficial level, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is about a depressed, recently divorced, middle-aged customer relations representative who take a leave of absence and then becomes a toothbrush salesman—hardly an irresistible premise for a novel. How does Coe manage to take such inauspicious circumstances and spin from them such a brilliant fictional work? What are the larger themes that emerge from the novel?
2. Early in the novel, after Max has confessed that he’s not very good at describing people, he admits: “I am not very good at describing clothes either—are you looking forward to the next three hundred pages?” [p. 6]. What is the effect of this kind of self-conscious disclosure—of Max addressing the reader directly and admitting that he is writing this book?
3. When Max tells people his name, he explains, depending on the age of the person he’s speaking to, that his last name is Sim—like the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) memory card in a cell phone or like the game that allows users to create a simulated city complete with simulated citizens, or Sims. Why would Coe have chosen this name for his protagonist?
4. The novel is titled The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim and yet Max himself claims that there is “no such thing as privacy anymore. We were never really alone” [p. 72-73]. In what ways is Max both alone and not alone, robbed of privacy and at the same time a victim of it?
5. Over dinner in a restaurant, both Max and his daughter Lucy are more absorbed in sending and receiving text messages than they are in each other’s company, which prompts Max to remember the wonderful intimacy he’d observed between the woman and her daughter. What is the novel saying about the role of new technologies such as BlackBerrys, SatNavs, cell phones, Facebook, etc., in our lives?
6. The novel is filled with surprises—sudden turnings, strange coincidences, stunning revelations. What are some of the most startling moments in the book? How do these create narrative tension and draw the reader on?
7. Max is both a narrator and a reader in the novel, as the story he is telling contains several other stories within it—Caroline’s short story “The Nettle Pit,” Alison’s essay “The Folded Photograph,” and Max’s father’s memoir “The Rising Sun.” What does Max learn about himself through reading these narratives? What do they add to the overall structure of the novel?
8. Just before Caroline leaves Max, she says, “How can anybody like a man who doesn’t even like himself?” [p. 13]. What is the source of Max’s inability to accept and to like himself? Does he come to greater self-acceptance by the end of the novel? In what ways do his struggles mirror those of his father?
9. Why does Max identify so strongly with Crowhurst? What are the consequences of this obsessive identification?
10. Discussing his complicated scheme to make money out of nothing, Roger Anstruther tells Max’s father: “Don’t become one of those lesser mortals who inhabits the material world. The world where people spend their lives making things and then buying and selling and using and consuming them. The world of objects. That’s for the hoi polloi, not the likes of you and me. We’re above all that. We’re alchemists” [p. 297]. In what ways do Roger’s exhortations here embody the Masters of the Universe ethos of the financial wizards who nearly destroyed the world economy in 2008? What are the dangers inherent in wishing to live “above” the material world?
11. Max recalls the quote by E. M. Forster “Only connect,” and reflects that the highways in Great Britain seem to have been designed to fulfill the opposite injunction: Only disconnect. In what ways does the novel dramatize the disconnection of modern life?
12. Why does Max feel so comforted by “Emma,” the voice of his Toyota’s Satellite Navigation system? In what ways is his “relationship” with her genuinely healing for him?
13. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is both heartbreaking and hilarious. What are some of the funniest moments in the book? What are some of the saddest moments?
14. What does the novel as a whole say about the emotional costs of repressing one’s sexual identity?
15. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, though it is an emotionally powerful, realistic narrative, could be described as meta-fiction. How surprising is the novel’s remarkable ending? In what ways does the ending force the reader to rethink all that has come before?
Posted April 3, 2012
This book was dull and depressing. After 150 pages in, I gave up. I thought the story might be slightly upbeat and quirky, but it was not. Very boring and depressing.
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