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.
It’s probably an accident that his most purely satirical novel, What a Carve Up!, is also his best. Even there, the satire is really beside the point. The book deals with the several members of a superlatively dislikeable clan, the Winshaws, and it’s a toss-up as to which son or daughter of the manse is the most entertainingly despicable. A decade on, in the current climate, the prize might have to go to Dorothy Winshaw, who is exploiting new methods to farm in the most economically efficient and environmentally damaging ways possible. Her rapidly expanding conglomerate experiments with various ways of preventing thousands of tightly-packed chickens from pecking one another to death. Tinted spectacles and blinkers are a waste of time and tricky to fit, so ‘debeaking’ becomes necessary; this is first attempted with a blowtorch, then with a soldering-iron, and is finally perfected by means of a patented mini-guillotine equipped with hot blades. The deformed nerves and facial mutilations that result are a surmountable problem. This is one short section in a book that, industry by industry, systematically uncovers self-servingness wherever it exists.
But Dorothy’s experiments in efficiency come about partly as a reaction to the weakness of her husband, a gentleman farmer of the old school who doesn’t like to see animals suffer. She realised something had to be done on the farm after watching him trying to deal with a cow with mastitis:
His sledgehammer, aimed at the centre of the skull, had gone wide of the mark and crashed through the animal’s eye. As it thrashed around in agony, George had just stood there, quivering and numb. It was left to Dorothy to fetch a clamp, secure the bloody, squealing creature by the nostrils and knock it dead with one almighty swing of the hammer. ‘Men!’ she had muttered, in a scornful tone of voice, and had gone inside to change her clothes before settling down for a pre-dinner gin and tonic.
This reminiscence appears at the end of a list of Dorothy’s innovations. Poor George – ‘quivering and numb’ – is just another weak animal to be terminated. It makes a reader wonder. Was the sober reportorial catalogue of animal torture – the gas chamber for bird slaughter, the mill for mincing unwanted male chicks – really the whole point of the exercise? Or was the point, in fact, this image, of the gin-and-tonic-swilling, hammer-wielding female, who snorts ‘Men!’ as she laments the inadequacy of the other sex? Dorothy is a man-hating, crowd-pleasing lesbian, or might as well be. What’s interesting about this is that there is no narrative reason for Dorothy to be a dyke, and the idea is taken nowhere. She’s gay because it happens to be funnier that way, and it also happens to be serious, because a few pages later her inadequate husband kills both himself and a dying calf and Dorothy doesn’t give a damn.
It happens, too, that there are a good number of dykey women in Coe’s work as a whole. I don’t think there’s any strong motive for that either (and Coe isn’t interested in gay men). They are good, bad and ugly. Lesbians recur in the novels because lesbians recur, just as photographs and scenes from films – snapshots, images, fragments – appear again and again throughout the books: a found movie-still of a woman pointing to a hospital, an album cover featuring a pair of murderous dwarves, a torn-in-half print of a boy and girl at work in a shed. These things always serve a purpose, but before the purpose is served, Coe, quite simply, seems compelled to include them. He likes photographs; they’re never entirely explained. Coe’s novels are deeply formal – The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle form the simplest of several complex structures – without being coercive or cold: you can read them, and love them, and race through the pages, without ever stopping to think how carefully they’re composed, how strictly they conform to a pattern. Their formalism is inclusive, not showy; they roll grippingly on. And contradicting the structural rigour are all those elements – the lesbians, the photographs, the music (there’s a lot of music) – that have no formal reason to exist but insert themselves, non-disruptively, nonetheless: a remembered image of castle-building on a beach, a Shropshire lane, a brief replayed flirtation in a black-and-white film. These things are there because the novelist likes them, and can’t avoid them.
Coe’s new novel is a demonstration of what a book by him can look like when everything non-essential has been stripped away: all the pyrotechnics, all the satire, all the comedy. Coe has written thinner novels before: three preceded What a Carve Up! – The Accidental Woman (1987), A Touch of Love (1989) and The Dwarves of Death (1990) – but even they contained strange murders, formal twists and hypertextual jumps. The Rain before It Falls is more straightforward. It’s a family story. What’s more, it’s a family album: the story is revealed through the medium of 19 photographs (and one painting) which have been selected by Rosamond, a dying old woman, as illustrative of the history she wants to tell. She describes each picture, in detail, in turn: each represents a moments in her life that can stand, by extrapolation, for a large part of the whole. That, after her death, her account is found to have been recorded on a series of cassette tapes, that the blind girl to whom she addresses her image-based narrative is called Imogen, that her storytelling is framed by the story of the woman – Gill – who finds the tapes, that it is interrupted halfway through by Gill again, that the first photograph appears to have been taken in 1938 and the last in 1983: all this makes it transparent enough that neatness of form is still very much on Coe’s mind. But, more than previously, the formalism seems separate from the novel’s main matter, because the story Rosamond has to tell is very plain indeed.
It begins during the war, when Rosamond is evacuated to the Shropshire countryside to stay with her aunt Ivy. There she gets to know and becomes obsessed with her cousin Beatrix. Ivy is cruel to Beatrix; Beatrix is cruel to Rosamond. Rosamond wants to run away, and Beatrix plans their escape, but only leads her in a wide circle via a caravan straight back to the hated farmhouse. They grow up. Beatrix gets married to a useless man and Rosamond goes to university, where she meets and becomes obsessed with a girl called Rebecca. Rebecca seems to be obsessed with Rosamond too, so they get together and share a flat. Beatrix, meanwhile, has had a daughter, Thea, to whom she is cruel. She runs away in a caravan to Ireland with another useless man and then leaves Thea in London, aged five, to be looked after by Rosamond and Rebecca when she goes to Canada in pursuit of a third, less useless man. Then she comes back and takes Thea away, to the dismay of Rosamond and Rebecca, who have become obsessed with her. Rebecca leaves Rosamond. Thea grows up. She shares a caravan with a useless man, with whom she has a daughter, Imogen, to whom she is cruel. Rosamond becomes obsessed with Imogen, but Thea, who is cruel to Rosamond, won’t let her see her. Imogen is taken away for adoption to Canada. Rosamond, bereft, muddles through until she meets a woman called Ruth. She is not really obsessed with Ruth, but they set up home together in London anyway. She doesn’t talk to Ruth about Beatrix or Thea or Rebecca or Imogen. Rosamond records her story, at the end of her life, in the hope that the tapes will reach Imogen, who can’t be traced. So they are listened to instead by her niece Gill and Gill’s daughters, who, not being directly connected to Beatrix, are of peripheral interest to Rosamond.
This is fabulously recursive, and you would be forgiven for not following the names. All these daughters and girlfriends are essentially interchangeable. We need all the details we can get from the photographs Rosamond describes: without them, we wouldn’t know where we were. If you opened the book at random, it would take you a minute to establish whether the cramped and caravan-like home being depicted is Much Wenlock 1949 (a ration book, a green-striped teapot!) or Lincolnshire 1975 (a leather jacket, an electric guitar!), and whether you’re watching Thea ignore her daughter Imogen or Beatrix ignore her daughter Thea. Women beget women, and cruelty begets cruelty, and we revisit on others the wrongs that were done to us. Nobody escapes their biblical past. It’s simple. The photographs complicate things, of course, because photographs do. There’s some reflection on this in the book, as there must be. After all, a photograph represents a moment frozen in time; a story is ongoing and – here – inexorable. Coe always wears his influences lightly, and the formal references to members of his private canon (B.S. Johnson, Rosamond Lehmann) are so unobtrusive that to labour them would be a distortion of how he works. But the epigraph chosen for The House of Sleep, from Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove, is instructive when considering a novel narrated by another Rosamond: ‘“I do get confused about time. If one loses one’s emotional focus” – she stopped, struggled, went on huskily – “that’s what happens. Aeons – split seconds – they interchange. One gets outside the usual way of counting.”’ The Rosamond of The Rain before It Falls, whose cousin Beatrix must be named for Lehmann’s sister, has, through her husky narration, also got outside the usual way of counting. She too collapses ages into instants, and her instants stand for ages.
Perhaps they shouldn’t. Photograph five shows a park in the winter of 1945, and skaters on a frozen pond: here are Beatrix and Rosamond as children. What Rosamond ends up describing, though, isn’t the photograph itself but a memory of a moment just after the picture was taken, since certain visual recollections ‘can be more vivid than anything a camera is able to preserve on film’. This is the crucial image:
A silhouette, that’s all, the outline of a human shape, and yet to me it is as expressive as if I were staring Beatrix in the face: in the tense, wired attitude of her body I can see all her despair, all her terrible sense of loss, all her horror at the thought of what awaited her when we returned to the house and told her mother the news. She had stood there, rooted, for I don’t know how long – paralysed by all of these things. Just for a few seconds, I suppose, but how clearly I can still see her. The image is burned, burned on my consciousness. It has never left me, and I can be certain now that it never will.
What, then, is this ‘news’, a news so terrible that it has filled Beatrix with an unbearable sense of despair and branded itself for ever on her perpetual onlooker’s memory? It is this: Beatrix’s mother’s dog has run away, never again to be found. It’s true that Ivy loves the dog more than she loves Beatrix, and that Beatrix will be made to suffer for the loss, but still: this is news about a dog. There is a mismatch here, between the suggestive and indefinable magic of the remembered picture, and the banality of what it represents.
Not everything needs to be spelled out. Novelists know this, even when they’re dealing with marriages and endings and the telltale compression of pages. Coe knows it well, as he proved in The House of Sleep, when he included a scene on a beach – not a photograph, but an afternoon recalled imagistically as if it were a photograph – in which three characters figure: a boy obsessed with a girl, a child between them, castles being built in the sand. The would-be adults are responsible for the child, but they’re young; the child, precociously, knows what’s happening in a way they don’t: she pretends to be asleep and hears their secrets. This picture matters very much to one of the novel’s characters: around its unspoken promises, a whole life is built. A similar picture is conjured up in The Rain before It Falls: photograph number 12, appearing directly after the central intermission. ‘This one,’ Rosamond says, ‘is probably my favourite picture of all.’ Rebecca and Rosamond are on a beach together; with them is Thea, who is shortly to be taken away from them. Rebecca – distant – is staring out over the water. She speaks, finally, to say that there’s a storm coming. ‘Thea heard this remark: she was always quick to notice changes of mood – it surprised me, every time, to realise what a sensitive child she was, how attuned to grown-up feelings.’ Thea wants to make everything all right: ‘I like the rain before it falls,’ she says. Rosamond doesn’t know how to deal with this degree of composure. She tells little Thea that there’s no such thing as the rain before it falls; before it falls, it isn’t rain. ‘Of course there’s no such thing,’ Thea says. ‘That’s why it’s my favourite. Something can still make you happy, can’t it, even if it isn’t real?’ (‘I know that, silly,’ says Imogen to Gill, in another instance of recursion.) This is arresting, if cute, and it’s clear what it signifies: Rosamond and Rebecca’s relationship isn’t real, even if it makes at least one of them happy. In The House of Sleep an entire plot hinged on everything the same image might mean; here its message is decoded. In Coe’s previous novels, the pictorial imagination was used to suggest things that couldn’t be put into words; here, thanks to Rosamond’s exhaustive explications, photographs are reduced to a single meaning. Their ambiguity is lost.
Even so, Rosamond’s narration is the best thing in the book. It is seductive, barbed, committed. She has secrets she is burning to tell, but her telling is controlled and sustained by her own alluring voice. The frequent sharpness of her way of speaking is in contrast to the framing sections. These, in free-indirect style, describe the reactions of her niece Gill as she listens to the tapes and goes about her life. A scene in a church: ‘She gazed around her at the warm, muted colours, the candlelight glinting off the golden chancel rail.’ A scene in the countryside: ‘Against this featureless backdrop, clusters of sycamore and conifer waved dark green and viridescent in the breeze, the rustle of their leaves the only sound to break in upon the imperishable noise of far-off traffic.’ All this viridescence, these imperishable auburn hues, these copper glints: this is photography in sepia-tinted soft-focus. It’s warm glow, it’s fuzz. An excuse for the flabbiness of the writing that deals with Gill might be that, unlike Rosamond, she has no secrets. Her function is to listen, and – sentimentally – be moved. The language represents that sentiment, to the novel’s detriment. But there is no excuse for a short passage that appears, in italics, in the closing pages. All along we have wondered – encouraged by the bite of Rosamond’s words – exactly how close this woman has been to the children she is obsessed with. The passage in italics answers the question, and answers it the wrong way. Rosamond was a good girl all along. It’s as though the novel so likes being likeable that it can’t admit an unreliable narrator: a reader might turn against her. But what’s wrong with that? Unfortunately, The Rain before It Falls lacks the necessary brio.