2015, Jonathan Coe
Another masterpiece from the writer whom Nick Hornby called ‘probably the best English novelist of his generation’. Just like What a Carve Up! and The Rotters’ Club, Number 11’s plot is wide-ranging, covering a variety of characters who are all ingeniously interlinked, their links becoming obvious as the novel progresses. This allows Coe to paint a wide picture of modern Britain, focusing on many different areas, from the super-rich to the poverty stricken, the people behind the headlines and the people reading them.
However, although there were many different stories told, what made this novel shine was the common themes which were cohesively woven throughout, ensuring that the message of the novel was clearly built up, layer by layer, as we moved through the different story-lines and characters.
I would say that the two major themes to this book are passivity and loss of innocence. One common motif is television – whether comedy panel shows, the news, reality TV or the mindlessness of daytime TV. Television is portrayed as an escape from boring or painful lives, but it is also shown to be a means of the viewer being trapped and enslaved, hypnotised by the screen and so politically subdued. It is associated with a lack of control for the viewer, in terms of their lack of resistance to – or criticism of – what they are being shown. Coe uses this to show a politically numb – and politically passive – nation.
Last night she had watched a TV panel show where a popular comedian, Mickey Parr, had gone on a satirical riff about bankers still get bonuses even after the banks had had to be bailed out by the government, and the studio audience had been in stitches. They all seemed to think the situation was hilarious. Val had sat on the sofa with her glass of Pinot Grigio and watched the routine with a puzzled frown. Why did people think it was funny? Why did it not make them angry and depressed?
Comedy is also a big theme; I enjoyed the segue into comic theory, and how this was related to politics.
[Laughter] takes energy and RELEASES or DISSIPATES it, thereby rendering it ineffective. So – what does that imply about (so-called) ‘political’ comedy, for which Britain is historically so famous? It implies this: political humour is the very opposite of political action. Not just its opposite, but its mortal enemy. Every time we laugh as the venality of a corrupt politician, at the greed of a hedge fund manager, at the spurious outpourings of a rightwing columnist, we’re letting them off the hook. The ANGER which we should feel towards these people, which might otherwise lead to ACTION, is released and dissipated in the form of LAUGHTER.
Coe also plays around with ideas of loss of innocence. See in this passage how he ingeniously links together the natural loss of the innocence of childhood with a loss of a political innocence that trusted the government to govern:
“I mean, think about it. Think about that image, the one he kept coming back to, over and over.”
“The crystal garden?”
“Not just the garden. Everything about the memory of watching that film. The whole… texture of it. Waiting for his father to come home from work – from the same place he worked for forty years. His mother in the kitchen, cooking dinner – the same dinner she always cooked on that night of the week. Can’t you see how secure that must have felt? The beautiful, blanketing safety of it all? Even the fact that the film came on television that afternoon and he happened to be watching it. That wasn’t his choice, you see. Somebody else had made that choice for him… the whole thing that defined that situation, and the whole beauty of it, as far as he was concerned, was passivity… He loved the idea of trusting people to make decisions on his behalf… I suppose, apart from anything else, that’s one of the definitions of a happy childhood, isn’t it? But Roger also thought he could remember a time when we all felt that way. A time when we trusted the people in power.”
Other recurring motifs include a ‘black one-legged lesbian on benefits’, a symbol of hatred for the right-wing media who is realised in the character of Alison, and, unsurprisingly, the number 11. It’s enjoyable and satisfying to see these images and ideas echo through the novel, creating a portrait of a world full of cause and effect, in which actions have consequences.
The only disappointing element was the ending. The horror element which worked so well in What a Carve Up! was not pulled off quite so well, and it seemed somehow rushed. I was left wanting more, but not in a deliciously though-provoking ‘what happens next?’ type way, as with The Rotters’ Club, but more in a ‘is that it?’ type way. Meanwhile, The Crystal Garden was by far and away the best story. Coe really understands obsession, and the haunting story, beautifully structured and paced, never overdone, will stay with you forever. It’s worth reading the book just for this section.
At times, Number 11’s painstaking truthfulness was depressing:
“Well, one of these days the law might change.”
“Why would that happen?”
“Because people are getting fed up.”
“So the revolution’s on its way, is it? ‘The people’ are getting ready to man the barricades and dust down the guillotines? I don’t think so. Give them enough ready meals and nights in front of the TV watching celebrities being humiliated in the jungle and they won’t even leave their sofas.”
And yet, there is something to celebrate in the fact that someone cares enough to write, in loving detail, about the state of the nation. It is encouraging to think that someone notices these things, that someone cares enough to turn depressing statistics into a fleshed out, carefully written novel.
If you enjoy Coe’s books, you should check out his twitter, where he’s very active. And he has a new book, Middle England, out on 8th November!