In Like a Fiery Elephant, his recent biography of B.S. Johnson,Jonathan Coe writes feelingfully about the perils of too much Eng. Lit. He ‘emerged from the experience of reading English at Cambridge’, he explains in the introduction, ‘imbued with a thriving, unshakeable contempt for anyone who had had the temerity to attempt the writing of literature in the last seventy or eighty years’. For a while he made one exception: Beckett. Then he discovered Johnson, whose Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry bore a puff from ‘the great man’. ‘Knowing almost nothing about contemporary British writing’, Coe was ‘more than ready to concur with B.S. Johnson’s theories about the modern novel. Yes, of course it was all hopeless and old-fashioned. Of course there was no point in writing anything that didn’t follow straight on from Ulysses and The Unnameable.’ ‘Oh sure,’ as an insufferable student puts it in What a Carve Up! (1994), ‘there are a few people who are still doing interesting things with the form – Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman crowd – but any serious modern artist who wants to use narrative ought to be working in film … I mean, it’s all just a lot of pissing about within the limits set down by bourgeois morality, as far as I can see. There’s no radicalism.’
The student makes this speech after reading the opening chapters of a novel by the protagonist of What a Carve Up!, Michael Owen (not the footballer). Michael, the author of Accidents Will Happen and The Loving Touch, is too experienced to be more than mildly affronted when a student finds his work insufficiently radical, but if his books are anything like Coe’s first two novels, The Accidental Woman (1987) and A Touch of Love (1989), he could mount a credible defence. It doesn’t follow straight on from The Unnameable or surge beyond the limits of bourgeois morality, but The Accidental Woman is clearly the work of a young man who’s read Murphy, Watt and First Love. The allegiance to Beckett is chiefly signalled by a studied disdain for the conventions of realism (‘Here you are to imagine a short scene of family jubilation, I’m buggered if I can describe one’), along with some suitably cryptic allusions and some asides about the inadvisability of hope. Coe’s attempts to imitate the master’s way with cliché don’t really come off – he didn’t have the resources to reproduce Beckett’s ‘no bone to pick with graveyards’ stuff – but the book raises some laughs when the humour is less self-consciously lugubrious.
A Touch of Love is harder to defend from a strictly avant-garde point of view. Using a broadly naturalistic idiom, it tells the story of a writer brought low by the strain of living up to his own avant-garde aspirations. The main character, Robin, is a depressed graduate student who lives in Coventry and spends most of his time avoiding his supervisor, who’s just published a book called The Failure of Contemporary Literature. Robin writes stories that lightly encode the predicament of a depressed graduate student who can’t sustain relationships with women. These stories are pretty funny, but they have a self-hating, hysterical edge, as Robin’s more perceptive friends point out when they finally get to read them. His stories are also fraught with Johnsonish gestures: ‘I dislike this mode of writing. You pretend to be transcribing your characters’ thoughts (by what special gift of insight?) when in fact they are merely your own, thinly disguised. The device is feeble, transparent, and leads to all sorts of grammatical clumsiness. So I shall try to confine myself, in future, to honest (honest!) narrative.’ Like Johnson, Robin eventually kills himself.
Having decided that ‘Modernist elitism’ might be a dead end, Coe was now ready to start ‘tapping into the energies of popular film, music and television . . . and rediscovering the pleasures of humour, storytelling, demotic, and so on’. He was also ready to start sending up the likes of the earnest student in What a Carve Up! in a more detached, affectionate way. First, though, he wrote a tremendously bad novel called The Dwarves of Death (1990), which may be a source of embarrassment: there’s no book called ‘The Midgets of Mortality’ on Michael Owen’s fictional CV. The Dwarves of Death is definitely interested in pop music, demotic and storytelling, but it’s a throwaway effort that seems to have been put together in a hurry, and raises a question about Coe’s enjoyable later books. Are the blemishes of The House of Sleep (1997) and The Rotters’ Club (2001) – the ill-concealed plot machinery; the spongy ‘realism’; the willingness to subordinate character to comic set pieces – the result merely of hasty writing? Or do they result from a lingering conviction that the stakes have been decisively lowered, that ‘continuing to work within a form that has patently played itself out’ is, as Coe once put it, ‘rather funny’?
In What a Carve Up! the grotesque Winshaw clan supplies unlovely human faces for Thatcherite ideas and institutions. But the cartoonishness is licensed by clever framing and balanced by the more three-dimensional world of Michael and other non-Winshaw characters. The novel even stages a debate about the dangers of its own sharp focus on politics (the object of Michael’s affections complains that he’s ‘too dogmatic’, too ‘black and white’), while the tragi-farcical ending collapses the different levels of reality in a surprising and effective way. In The House of Sleep, on the other hand, a kinky, right-wing mad scientist rubs shoulders with more plausible cast members for no particular reason. While the book is skilfully organised – this time with a double time-scheme – the mixture of pathos and humour is less well judged: the humour works better than the pathos. The frame narrative of The Rotters’ Club almost looks like an afterthought, and the characters’ perceptiveness varies from scene to scene in order to accommodate the jokes. Since most of the characters are hormone-addled, girl-fearing adolescents, the effect is more persuasive than it might sound.
The Rotters’ Club was also an improvement on The House of Sleep when it came to striking a balance between funny and sad. Benjamin Trotter – a.k.a. Bent Rotter – and his sister, Lois, are jocosely named, but their relationship after her boyfriend’s death in the Birmingham pub bombing gives ballast to Coe’s seriocomic survey of 1970s Britain. Benjamin, a would-be writer, is a dreamy, passive boy who feels ‘destined always to be offstage whenever the main action occurs’. His schoolfriends – Philip, a conscientious plodder; Doug, a worldly left-wing wit; Harding, an anarchic practical joker; and Steve, an athlete and the only black pupil – are more enterprising, as are their counterparts from the girls’ school over the road. Benjamin spends most of the novel mooning over the needy but beautiful Cicely and not noticing that he should clearly get together with the much more likeable Claire. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast get out and see history in the making – picket lines, the National Front, the coming of punk and Thatcher. Blue Nun flows in torrents. Countercultural types speak fondly of Richard Branson. Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons are hip. In other words, there’s a fair amount of easy, nostalgic, hindsight-tickling fun, combined with multiple coming-of-age tales, some forecasts of political gloom and a couple of unresolved mysteries. A TV version is on the way.
Coe’s latest novel, The Closed Circle, is the sequel promised at the end of The Rotters’ Club, which closes with two predictions made in 1979. ‘You and Cicely will have a long and happy life together,’ Philip’s father tells Benjamin, and ‘that woman will never be prime minister of this country.’ The story resumes during the run-up to the millennium. Benjamin is an accountant in Birmingham, enduring a passionless marriage to Emily, a friend from his schooldays, and still working on his never-to-be-completed novel. He hasn’t seen Cicely for twenty years – it turns out that she ran away with a girl from Manhattan – but he still nurses a hopeless, idealised passion for her. Paul, his younger brother, who spent most of The Rotters’ Club reading Milton Friedman, is now a smarmy, sharp-suited New Labour MP. Doug – whose lust for posh totty was established by a youthful experience with a girl who said things like ‘Oh Duggie, isn’t this topping?’ during sex – is now married to the Honourable Francesca Gifford and writing Old Labourish columns for an unidentified broadsheet. (He also has an infant daughter called Coriander.) Philip is amicably divorced from Claire and working for a Birmingham paper. Claire, in turn, is still wondering what happened to her older sister, Miriam, who disappeared in 1974 after ending an affair with Doug’s dad.
Even if you’ve read The Rotters’ Club recently, or looked at the new book’s helpful synopsis, it’s not easy at first to keep track of all the characters. Soon, though, the story starts to cohere around the Trotter brothers, whose lives are disrupted by a foxy student called Malvina. Benjamin befriends her in his local Waterstone’s, learns that she’s doing media studies and introduces her to Paul. Impressed by her savvy, Paul takes her on as his media adviser and falls in love with her. Complications and moral dilemmas ensue, especially once Doug gets wind of the story. Meanwhile, Benjamin starts cracking up after losing his Christian faith, and Claire starts unravelling the mystery of her sister’s disappearance. Steve and Harding reappear, inaugurating a subplot about the resurgence of the far right. And Paul’s activities as an ambitious, right-wing Labour MP lead to further scrutiny of current events. BMW’s threatened closure of the Longbridge plant drives several plot-lines. Paul’s circle of boardroom and Westminster chums includes several PFI co-enthusiasts whose actions affect the other characters. The attacks of 11 September and the invasion of Iraq are viewed with dismay.
As in What a Carve Up!, Coe undercuts the most opinionated characters in order to pre-empt charges of editorialising. The subtlety of these inoculative efforts is open to question: it’s mildly embarrassing when Benjamin worries that he’s ‘raking over the embers of my little life and trying to blow it up into something significant by sticking a whole lot of politics in’. But the politics is less of a problem than the present-day setting in general, which – unlike the 1970s setting of The Rotters’ Club – doesn’t come conveniently pre-estranged. Coe sometimes sounds as if he’s writing science fiction: ‘He retrieved Paul’s number from the SIM card memory and hit the dial button.’ Elsewhere, he could be reviewing last night’s TV: ‘an American comedy show . . . about four rich single women who lived in Manhattan’; ‘a high-profile satirical television quiz show’. People are forever munching on ‘panfried seabass fillets’ or ‘Thai chicken salad with green papaya and rocket’. Nigella Lawson (‘implausibly glamorous’) and Ian Hislop (‘smart-arsed’) put in coy appearances. It worked better with prog rock and Blue Nun.
The long delayed surprises carried over from the previous book are also disappointing; most of the plot twists are signposted well in advance. So are most of the punchlines: when the tongue-tied Benjamin is advised to approach the hairdresser he’s got a crush on by asking for ‘a cut and blow dry’, the subsequent merriment isn’t hard to predict. And the writing is frequently absentminded. Nevertheless, The Closed Circle is – as always with Coe – a strangely likeable performance. Even at its corniest it has a direct and unpretentious narrative drive. That he’s capable of more polished books throws the faults into relief, but his desire to communicate with a larger audience seems more than a desire for larger sales or an excuse for writing too rapidly. Perhaps it’s a shame that the influence of Sid James has won out over higher ambitions: What a Carve Up! shows that the two of them can co-exist quite productively. But, as Coe could retort, few people who maintain a slavish obeisance to the ideals of High Modernism manage to publish five novels before hitting 40. B.S. Johnson managed six, it’s true. Still, look what happened to him.