Wednesday, 7 July 2010
Going Downhill Fast
Just finished reading The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe. Thoughts.
To begin with, it’s a great read, compelling, beautifully written, and occasionally very funny as the story is related with a kind of Pooterish lack of self-awareness by its profoundly dull protagonist. I say protagonist, but that would suggest the character was in charge of his own destiny, when he’s at the mercy of coincidence, misunderstanding and his own limited horizons. One of the most telling moments was Maxwell’s discussion about embracing failure, about the liberating feeling of giving up. Max is, like many of us, going through life with the sense that they haven’t got the hang of it yet and that everyone else – particularly previous generations – seems much better at it.
Max reminded me of the lead characters from Coe’s The Accidental Woman and What A Carve Up! – in both instances, the leads are almost sociopathic, isolated souls, who feel detached – rejected – by the world around them and instead are lost in their own thoughts. What A Carve Up! in particular has an hilarious section where the character keeps on failing to listen to what someone is saying to him, because the writing follows his train of thoughts as he drifts elsewhere.
I suppose I should mention the story, though if you want more details check out one of the Guardian’s reviews - this novel is honoured with two (okay, so one's from the Observer, and both seem to miss the point, but anyway). It’s essentially about Max’s descent – his willing descent – into madness, falling in love with his car Satnav, whilst meeting his ex-wife, his daughter, old and new friends and acquaintances en route, and through four digressions – a letter about Donald Crowhurst, a short story written by his ex-wife, an essay written by a childhood friend and a memoir of his fathers – he pieces together the accidents that have formed the turning points of his life. The digressions are themed as elements, the idea being that Max is at the mercy of them, in much the same way that Donald Crowhurst was similarly a victim of fate and that terrible thing of finding oneself in a hopeless situation and not quite knowing how to get out of it and finding it easier to just let things get worse.
Which sounds terribly pretentious, when actually it’s very funny. Max gets mugged and then the mugger asks for directions, which Max helpfully provides. He bores someone to death on a plane flight. He gets very excited about having hundreds of messages in his inbox – all but one of which turn out to be offering him ways to lengthen his penis. And – in a very David Nobbs-esque plot point – he becomes a travelling salesman for a new type of ecologically-friendly toothbrush, dealing with suits speaking incomprehensible business jargon. There’s an underlying sadness through it all, the sense that this modern world of ours makes it very easy for people to function as solitary units, and makes it very difficult for them to make real-life connections. Plus there’s a fair bit about the madness of the City, as today’s Great Big Economic Fuck Up is mirrored by a failed gamble made by Max’s father.
Throughout, there’s a deliberate sense that the narrator is not quite telling us the story properly, skipping bits, or telling us what didn’t happen, but which means the ending, in which the artifice of the story is revealed to be, well, an artifice – and which could easily have been a throwing-the-book-at-the-world moment – actually feels earned and appropriate, rather than being a great big did-you-see-what-I-did-there. And it made me feel I should give Coe’s biography of BS Johnson another attempt.
But in short, I loved it, and think it’s his best novel since What A Carve Up! Oh and Jonathan Coe, if your ego-surfing has led you to this blog, I know exactly how this book could be adapted for Radio 4. I would love to do it.
Now I have decide whether next to read the new novel by David Nobbs or David Nicholls. They are both recommended to me by Jonathan Coe on their back covers (and yet neither David returns the favour for Jonathan’s book, I notice). It would be an interesting experiment, to follow a trail of authors recommending each other’s books on the back covers, to see how far you could get.
But I won’t bother doing it.