Letter from England

Jonathan Coe has spent years demonstrating and investigating the particular brand of fucked-upness unique to Britain. His series of novels examines the national character, marrying filmic historical sweep to intricate characterization and some very good jokes. Above all his first novels were distinguished by an unyielding, magnificent rage.

A Blairite Novel

  • Jonathan Coe, The Closed Circle. Viking UK, 2004.

God we’re a fucked-up country, I’m beginning to see that, now.

—The Rotters’ Club

Jonathan Coe has spent years demonstrating and investigating the particular brand of fucked-upness unique to Britain. His series of novels examines the national character, marrying filmic historical sweep to intricate characterization and some very good jokes. Above all his first novels were distinguished by an unyielding, magnificent rage.

Coe is, for a writer of literary fiction, pretty successful—his last couple of books have sold heavily and he has his own cover-design template. Most bookshops offered 2001’s The Rotters’ Club in their 3-for-2 sale promotions, including him in the kind of lazy consumption of literary fiction this practice has created. He has paid his dues (three minor novels before the massive success of What A Carve Up!) and maintains a healthy interest in experimentation, at least retrospectively, as demonstrated by his biography of formal experimentalist and part-architect of literary postmodernism B. S. Johnson (the book’s called Like A Fiery Elephant, and is likewise unpublished in the US). The BBC is filming The Rotters’ Club, just as they did Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Coe has won various literary awards, but never been nominated for the Booker.

Of course the interest of Coe was that his best books sat on the fence between high literary and low popular forms of writing—successfully—when British writing sees so many failures in the contest between the two. The UK is distressingly empty of writers who have been able intelligently to combine early promise and popularity. There is Pat Barker, Ian McEwan. Amis is a busted flush; Winterson, Rushdie and Barnes seem to have lost focus entirely. We’re waiting on Dan Rhodes, Toby Litt, possibly David Mitchell. Prizes like the Booker or the Orange have become incredibly powerful at apportioning commercial success and literary celebrity to a tiny number of otherwise unpopular books. Vernon God Little had sold some 3000 copies before it won the Booker in 2003; it is now one of the biggest sellers of the year. Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo, which was nominated for this year’s award, was pulped several months ago and Faber are desperately trying to get it back into print. But no path exists really for those who would be both popular and innovative, without the good luck of winning a prize. Even those writers who do win appear to lose their way after one or two books, caught, if they are successful, between a need to deliver sales and the noble experimentation that first earned them notice.

Coe’s own career trajectory was different, and a tribute to one damn good book. This was 1994’s What A Carve Up! (called The Winshaw Legacy in the USA), a sprawling, angry novel which propelled Coe to the forefront of Britain’s young writers—just a year too late to figure as one of Granta‘s “Best of Young British Novelists.” Even now the book is stunning in its savagery. The Thatcher years often seem like a bad memory, somehow exorcised by the defeat of the Tories in 1997 and their descent into absurdity. But Coe’s novel traced the systematic destruction of British public life through the “modernising” and endemic corruption of the ’80s political agenda. The story was focused through the horrific and self-obsessed Winshaw dynasty, purveyors of the cheapest arms and the most genetically modified meat. It took on grand themes and institutions, but still managed to provide a compelling inner life for the protagonist Michael and a journey towards national and individual revelation. Here was Coe, a genuine historical novelist, a political novelist, a serious, witty and knowledgeable novelist, who was nevertheless not afraid to end the book exacting bloody, comic revenge on the entire Winshaw clan, who die one by one in a fashion fitting their crimes.

Generally critics compared the characterization and plot to Dickens, but the book has more affinity with Henry Fielding. Coe wrote his Ph.D on Fielding and Tom Jones, and Michael’s picaresque journey to his familial destiny clearly bore that book’s influence. What A Carve Up! was an outstanding piece of writing: funny, sentimental (but not reactionary), full of grace and verve but able to put the boot in where necessary. It was one of the best British novels of the 90s, and one of the few literary responses to Thatcherism to avoid dogmatic hectoring.

The model Coe established, then, was a Fielding-influenced state-of-the-nation novel, a journey both physical and through memory to some kind of picture of Britain. It is a worthy and interesting project, something akin to the novels of Roth or Bellow. The Rotters’ Club (2001) examined a Britain riven by union action and incipient class warfare, a country in transition from the grammar school formality of the postwar years to the modernization and social vandalism of the ’80s. The book follows the fortunes of a group of school friends (Benjamin, Doug, Phillip, Claire) and their early lives in the social maelstrom of late ’70s Birmingham. The book concluded on the day of the 1979 election that swept Thatcher to power, and was sprinkled throughout with reconstructions of key events such as the Birmingham pub bombings and the Grunwick protests.

An illuminating comparison in terms of historical fiction is to David Peace, whose recent GB: 84 (2004) is similarly concerned with broad-brush inference from the tiny details of history. Peace looks at the ’80s miner’s strike in massive, sprawling, almost unreadable fashion, presenting a country in the throes of civil war. Agents provocateurs abound, the state is suspicious and paranoid and the social fabric of the country is tearing. His project is over-ambitious, and he presents us with an unwieldy, fragmented narrative. But at least his work is embedded in history. For Coe history is something of an ogre, intractable, unstoppable; there is a sense of inevitability to events. It is like the fairground ride train in Letter from an Unknown Woman, the backdrop moving behind the passengers who don’t shift at all and barely notice it; they certainly can’t change it.

Stylistically, you could say Coe has moved from the punk promise of What A Carve Up!, which was gothic, huge, and most of all angry, to the prog rock noodlings of the two later books. The Rotters’ Club made it a theme, presenting Benjamin and his friend Phillip as romantic, solitary adolescents whose love of dubious prog rock bands is outmoded and undermined by the onset of modernity in the form of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. The boys fail to seize the engaged life represented by punk (their friend Doug does, becoming a political writer in the process), desperately looking inwards instead for some kind of meaning. Coe’s books have themselves begun to enact the same fascination with the odd, spiritual, and esoteric, following grandiose schemes that seek the pattern of the universe rather than the anarchic random destruction of punk. Nearly all the best bits of The Rotters’ Club are the pastiche of far right literature submitted to the school magazine by Sean Harding, the class clown who as a character is maligned by Coe possibly because the kind of anarchy he inspires (often bemoaned as pointless or inscrutable; finally revealed as racist in The Closed Circle) threatens to upset the world of the novel too much.

Despite my caveats, The Rotters’ Club was a decent attempt at a novel of Britishness, and left open room for a sequel set in modern Britain (at times there was a 6-novel sequence projected, prompting comparisons to Anthony Powell, a novelist with a similarly static take on the relationships between individuals and history). The Closed Circle is that much anticipated sequel. The book is slap-bang up to date, set in the late ’90s and the present day, and so takes in Blairism, contemporary Britain, and the post-9/11 world. It even has time to consider the war in Iraq.

Everybody had a hope that Closed Circle would do for Blairism what Carve Up! had earlier done for Thatcher. Of course there is less to hate outright about Blair; the genius of the New Labour project is the grinding into the middle ground of everything, the normalizing of ordinariness, the death of aspiration. Nevertheless no one is any longer unaware that this management-consultancy culture hides something unpleasant. Blair’s warped religious poetics, the collaboration with Bush, the destruction of social institutions and the averaging of cultural life should provide rich pickings for the angry satirical novelist.

And the perfidy of New Labour turns out to need a better chronicler. The novel picks up 20 years after The Rotters’ Club and meanders around giving us belated (and often, because of their belatedness, uninteresting) answers to some of the various mysteries in that book. Coe’s tone is so gentle as to be almost supine. He chooses to concentrate, as with the earlier book, on characters who aren’t interesting (Benjamin Trotter’s self-absorption reaches new levels here). The story follows the fortunes in love of Benjamin’s brother, Paul; Benjamin’s loss of faith and attempts to discover a middle-aged purpose; and their friend Claire’s struggles to see a “pattern” in the randomness of life. Along the way various characters from The Rotters’ Club are re-examined: we discover some racism, some success, some class conflict. The book’s sentimentality is unbalanced in the way that The Rotters’ Club had managed to avoid. The political points are weak; punches are pulled; characters are forgiven.

In the original book, Paul Trotter was a right-wing know-it-all and often deliciously unpleasant; here he becomes a slightly hapless New Labour politico. I was looking forward to the figure being used to lay bare the Thatcherite conspiracy that lay at the heartlessness of the Blair government, merrily destroying the railways and tearing society apart for profit. Instead he is media unsavvy, naïve, garrulous, a bit of a mug. He is simply not right, caught as a character between the stools of tragedy (he isn’t impressive or interesting) and farce (he isn’t funny). Paul is, well, a too-familiarly New Labour politician—neither good nor bad, somehow unimpressive and forgettable. The book’s material on racism doesn’t really ring true and Coe chooses to place it at arm’s length, safely mired in madness in rural Norfolk. The final chapters, with their real-time comments on the invasion of Iraq, are just embarrassing from a writer of this quality. Naïve and self-righteous, they’ll be totally out of date in 6 months, or come the US election, or in fact now.

The sex is awful. There are no jokes. There are no villains. The book describes further Coe’s downward movement from a position of great promise and achievement. In many ways he winds up complicit with the Blairite soft-modernizing project through his anodyne criticisms of the modern world; the grumpy tone and semi-mystical leanings of the storyline leave us with an extremely hands-off novel, a missed opportunity. Is this Third-Way writing? Or is the very belabored point that the UK is just dull?

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