Beatrix and Rosamond
- The Rain before It Falls by Jonathan Coe
Viking, 274 pp, £17.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 670 91728 0
People think they like reading Jonathan Coe’s novels for any number of reasons. For their satirical sharpness, for instance: What a Carve Up! (1994) – the carve-up in question involving agriculture, politics and the media – seemed to express exactly what people felt about greed, corruption and class entitlement in the 1980s. Historians of their own lifetimes admired the thickly detailed but not soppily nostalgic way Coe defined the 1970s in The Rotters’ Club (2001): the Longbridge factory, the IRA, the NME, grammar schools, the Zep. Pleasing both decade-spotters and appreciaters of character, The Closed Circle (2004) took the memorable personnel of the previous novel and cast them forward into the New Labour Noughties, where they muddled along in the same old ways but with better haircuts and a more complicated attitude to relationships. Satire, historical precision, rounded operatic characters, bread and circuses: what more could a reader want?
But other readers will give other reasons. There is Coe’s zinginess with ideas, most purely demonstrated by The House of Sleep (1997), which dealt geekily with narcolepsy, Bataille, Lacanian analysis, castration anxiety and the lost films of the mythical Salvatore Ortese. And then there are the novels’ plots: a twin sister turning out to be an accidental invention made real by a sex-change operation undertaken to win over a would-be lover; the half-century raving of a mad old bag turning out to conceal a long-planned mastery over the intricacies of a gothic-horror-cum-detective-story denouement. And this is to ignore the novels’ jokes, which, like the plots, are unfurled with restraint, with a will-he, won’t-he call on patience that is usually rewarded with a punchline so neat and surprising that it seems no other could ever have been available. Most people’s favourite joke in Coe – it appears in What a Carve Up! – begins with a writer struggling to find the right word with which to finish off a review of a rival’s book. ‘It was always the same: always those last couple of sentences, the even-handed summation, the ironic parting shot, which took such a disproportionate toll on one’s time and effort.’ He tries out various candidate words: this overrated novelist, he thinks, lacks the necessary ‘panache’, or ‘polish’, or ‘style’, or perhaps he means ‘brilliance’ or – getting closer now – ‘bravado’. Forty pages on he’s finally hit on the mot juste: his enemy doesn’t have the necessary . . . ‘brio’. That’s it exactly, he thinks, the damning ending to an upstart’s promising career, except then the review is printed and, thanks to a copy-taker’s error, the paper’s bemused readers are left to suppose that the novelist’s real problem is that he doesn’t have a pen.
These are all good reasons to like Coe’s novels. But they are all, in some way, mistaken. I don’t mean that the books aren’t funny or clever. It’s just that the things that we think are motivating our liking aren’t integral to the novels: they happen along the way, while something else is going on. Take the satire. In The Closed Circle it turns out that The Rotters’ Club’s Paul Trotter, who at the age of nine was a precocious admirer of Mrs Thatcher and a rabid free-marketeer, has grown up to become a New Labour MP. Spot on, perhaps, as a characterisation of the Blairite hidden agenda. But this is where the satire ends: Paul turns out to be a pretty nice guy, and elicits sympathy by being wholly ignored by ‘Tony’. With a few like-minded friends he sets up a colloquium – a secret and ad hoc advisory group to the Treasury Select Committee which meets at Rules in Covent Garden – called The Closed Circle. This ought to be an opportunity to explain precisely which items on the agenda are being hidden: do specific business interests dictate particular turns in parliamentary legislation? The members’ discussions, however, are limited to such subjects as the size of the severance package recently afforded to one of their number and the pleasures of golf. There is no big secret, other than the fact of the group’s existence: The Closed Circle was also the name of a debating society at the grammar school of this novel’s prequel, and in the society’s reincarnation some of the questions posed by The Rotters’ Club are thereby given a formal answer; the circle is closed because one book completes the other. The second novel represents formal ‘closure’: its satire is secondary, a logical corollary to the suggestion that everything that happens is related to what happened before. The premise of The Closed Circle – that everything and everyone is connected – leads to an endless series of narrative ironies and satirical opportunities. The formal arrangement comes before the satire, not the other way round. A consequence of this is that Coe never rams a satirical conclusion down the reader’s throat.