There are those who like to mortise a plot, carefully and neatly, and there are those who are content simply to bang it together with panel pins and a tube or two of Gripfill. Jonathan Coe is undoubtedly the craftsman – a counter-sinking, dove-tailing, professional-finishing kind of writer. But he does get away with the occasional bodge. The framing device for his new novel, The Rotters’ Club, for example, seems to be held together with two blobs of mastic, intended to provide a solid fixing onto a sequel.
The book begins: ‘On a clear, blueblack, starry night, in the city of Berlin, in the year 2003, two young people sat down to dinner. Their names were Sophie and Patrick.’ These two, it turns out, are merely the offspring of two of the novel’s main characters, whose stories Sophie proceeds to tell: ‘Come with me, then, Patrick. Let’s go backwards. Backwards in time, all the way back to the beginning. Back to a country that neither of us would recognise, probably. Britain, 1973.’ Sophie’s presence is barely felt again until the end of the novel, when she pops up and says to poor Patrick, a man clearly possessed of the proverbial patience of a saint, who has listened to her for 400 pages without a peep: ‘All right, then: now it’s your turn.’ In case anyone has failed to understand the significance of Sophie’s words, Coe adds in an ‘Author’s note’: ‘There will be a sequel to The Rotters’ Club, entitled The Closed Circle, resuming the story in the late 1990s.’ The Closed Circle is either going to be a very short book, or Patrick is going to have to pep up a bit.
Coe’s fastenings and fixings are not often so ugly and obvious – so butt-hinged – but his plots are often of such a complexity as to require a preface, explanatory acknowledgment or appendix. The House of Sleep (1997) begins: ‘The odd-numbered chapters of this novel are set mainly in the years 1983-84. The even-numbered chapters are set in the last two weeks of June 1996.’ Coe likes to date almost everything, from the rather vague chapter titles, ‘Beforewards’ and ‘Afterhand’ of The Accidental Woman (1987) to the diary entries in The Rotters’ Club – ‘4th August, 1978 3+256 A.M.’ (‘The letters and numbers at the top of each entry … refer to the number of years and days after Malcolm’s death’ – at the hands of the IRA.) His novels are often divided into days, weeks, months, seasons or years. Like his characters, he seems obsessed with marking time.
This is because he is a scrupuland, a virtue which makes him vulnerable. At the beginning of A Touch of Love (1989) he writes, ‘I’d like to thank Michèle O’Leary for making it possible for me to write about a lawyer,’ which is fair enough, and ‘Pip Lattery for introducing me to the work of Simone Weil’, which is OK, but then he adds: ‘which came to influence this work’. Six little words carrying more weight of pretension it is difficult to imagine (although the insouciant ‘Special thanks to Carlo Feltrinelli and his family for their generous hospitality in Gargnano, Brescia Province, where a large part of The Rotters’ Club was written’ comes close). And yet he’s only being honest. A Touch of Love is indeed influenced by Simone Weil and it is only polite to thank those who have assisted the author with country retreats and Martinis at five.
Confessions are evidence of a conscience, and thus to be valued, and Coe is nothing if not conscientious, and admirable. Or lovable. He is happy to admit to the various and necessary time-saving devices, back-scratchings and brown-nosings that other writers do their best to disavow. At the end of What a Carve Up! (1994) Coe acknowledges the work of Frank King, and writes: ‘the only repayment I can offer him is to recommend that readers make every effort to seek out these and other novels … and campaign vigorously for their reissue.’ In The Rotters’ Club he goes even further and lists the dozen or so books that have ‘proved informative, helpful or inspiring in writing this novel’, confesses to the source of his title (‘The Rotters’ Club, by Hatfield and the North, released in 1975, is available on Virgin Records’), notes that ‘Section 1 of “The Chick and the Hairy Guy” contains quotations from genuine lonely hearts advertisements in Sounds (1973)’ and Section 3 ‘quotations from the magazines Woman (1976) and Take a Break (1996)’, and gives thanks for ‘general help, advice and encouragement’ to his chums. He is fastidious.
His re-creation of the 1970s in The Rotters’ Club, needless to say, is wonderfully detailed. The Berni Inn and the denim loons – ah, yes. The Blue Nun. The chicken-in-a-basket. And John Denver singing ‘Annie’s Song’. Marvellous. But Coe also includes the text of a speech given by one of the characters in later life, looking back on the 1970s, and complaining that ‘people forget about the 1970s. They think it was about wide collars and glam rock, and they get nostalgic about Fawlty Towers and kids’ TV programmes … They forget about the Ugandan Asian refugees who arrived at Heathrow in 1972 … They forget that in those days, the National Front sometimes looked like a force to be reckoned with.’ Coe does kitsch but he also does politics: The Rotters’ Club concerns itself with the Grunwick strike, Michael Edwardes and British Leyland, and the Birmingham pub bombing. Coe is only ever content with full context.
His words can seem like a means to an end. They remind. They point things out. They are not themselves intended to impress. His prose is neat-o and perfectly serviceable but his audacities, and his brilliance, lie in the narrative. His work is ingenious rather than beautiful. He is a craftsman and designer rather than a poet. All that is usually introverted, implosive and dull in the experimental novel Coe turns into entertainment. He is writing a biography of B.S. Johnson – whom he admires – but he writes more like Pamela Hansford Johnson. He has established for himself a set of stylistic conventions – conversational smooth prose, non-sequential narrative, the use of interpolated material, a massive cast of characters, absurd and unexpected scenes or reports of violence, and satiric wit – which combines the best parts of popular fiction with the literary. This perhaps explains his books’ great length. It is difficult to believe, after the great parade of the Winshaws in What a Carve Up!, that Coe could actually create a larger cast-list, but in The Rotters’ Club, the characters include a Colin, a Sheila, a Benjamin, a Paul and a Lois Trotter, a Bill; an Irene and Doug Anderton; Barbara, Sam and Philip Chase, Malcolm, Roy Slater, Sean Harding, Steve Richards, Culpepper, Cicely Boyd, Donald, Claire and Miriam Newman, and Mr Plumb. And these are only some of the speaking parts. To try to summarise the plot would be like trying to summarise EastEnders. You couldn’t: you shouldn’t. The plot isn’t the point, so much as the stories, mood and milieu.
The Rotters’ Club concerns the lives of a number of boys attending King William’s School, a ‘toff’s academy in Edgbaston’ during the 1970s. To retell the boys’ stories Coe uses a review of Tales from Topographical Oceans, interviews from the school magazine, an interview transcript, and a Pete Frame-style Rock Family Tree, not to mention all the usual letters and diaries, and a final flowing chapter of stream of consciousness. While Coe can choose between narrative voices, his characters are terrorised by choice. They seem to be staring at the world through plate-glass, like a child in the baker’s unable to decide between a caramel slice and a fondant fancy. In The Rotters’ Club, however, there are fewer of the paranoiacs and border-line psychotics who have inhabited his earlier work. In What a Carve Up! the Winshaws were wealthy mental defectives, and Coe was in danger of becoming a caricaturist. In The House of Sleep he wrote about insomniacs and the crazed search for a cure to insensibility. Now he wants to explore the softer edges of emotion, the ways in which people suffer dents and injuries to their self-esteem. The new book seems more contemplative than his earlier work. But, as in all his novels, he is writing about characters in deadlock, about people who are baffled by their own experience. The Trotters, he writes, are ‘all of them inscrutable, even to themselves’. Coe’s adolescents harbour ambitions which they cannot express, let alone fulfil. Benjamin, for example, is working towards ‘some grand artefact, either musical, or literary, or filmic, or perhaps a combination of all three’. He’s like Adrian Mole. He is everyone. It’s pathetically funny.
Coe’s work is routinely described as comic, but it is not routinely comic. The humour occurs either in elaborate set pieces, or in occasional waspish asides. The funniest passage in his work – indeed, probably the funniest passage in English fiction since Jim Dixon was let loose upon the world forty years ago – occurs in The House of Sleep. The footnotes in an article published by one of the book’s main characters become misplaced and the footnote ‘Much praised, recently, by Denis Thatcher, who said they had given him “six of the most enjoyable hours of my life”. His wife Margaret later joked that he was “stiff for hours afterwards”,’ which should have been attached to a sentence reading, ‘this club … boasts among its attractions no fewer than two rather challenging 18-hole golf courses,’ instead becomes attached to a sentence reading: ‘Now a distinguished actress, of course, Marsha is delightfully candid about her earlier career, and has never made any secret of the fact that she started out in the business by starring, under my own direction, in a series of sex movies.’ This is sleight-of-hand. Coe also uses the back of the hand. In The Rotters’ Club, Colin’s homemade light ale is described as a drink ‘which differed hardly at all from the commercially manufactured beers, except that this one tended to come out of the keg looking cloudy and green, with a head that took up at least two-thirds of the glass and an afterburn like fermented WD40’. Or better still, in the Berni Inn, ‘Roy ordered fillet steak and chips, Colin ordered fillet steak and chips, Bill ordered fillet steak, chips and peas and Jack, who went to the South of France for his holidays, ordered fillet steak with chips, peas and mushrooms on the side, a touch of sophistication that was not lost on the others.’ Like Dickens, Coe is a writer who is often praised for the breadth and depth of his vision of society. Like Dickens, he is in fact exceedingly and exquisitely focused in his prejudices. As Orwell wrote of Dickens, ‘the great disadvantage, and advantage, of the small urban bourgeois is his limited outlook. He sees the world as a middle-class world, and everything outside these limits is either laughable or slightly wicked.’ Once again, in The Rotters’ Club, the comparison magnificently holds.