An ambitious novel, Middle England is let down by its treatment of Brexit, says Ian Sansomby Ian Sansom / October 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Jonathan Coe writes big, bold state-of-the-nation novels that demand to be taken seriously. Coe’s new novel Middle England is being promoted by his publishers as “The novel for our strange new age,” though such a claim depends on what exactly you think a novel, any novel, about our strange new age should be like, and indeed whether or not our age is in fact either strange or new.
Coe’s books often interconnect: his underrated 2015 novel Number 11, for example, is a sort of non-sequel sequel to 1994’s What a Carve Up!, his great, genre-defying account of Thatcherism. Middle England is the third instalment of what one might call his King Edward’s novels—books that largely feature characters who, like Coe, attended King Edward’s school in Birmingham in the 1970s, which was at the time a mixed independent and grammar school. The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004) are parts one and two of what may eventually be regarded as the closest thing we have to a contemporary middle-class, middle-England Dance to the Music of Time.
Coe’s recurring central character, Benjamin Trotter, is living alone in a converted mill house on the banks of the River Severn, on the outskirts of Shrewsbury. Benjamin remains a sweet-natured soul, a writer and composer. (Interestingly, there are a lot more people in the novel, journalists, lecturers, writers or musicians, who live in converted mills or in Kensington than there are people doing what one might think of as actual middle-income jobs.) Benjamin has been working on his roman fleuve, “Unrest,” since he was at Oxford in the late 1970s. The book now consists of more than one and a half million words, complete with its own musical sound track: “Shapeless, sprawling, prolix, over-ambitious, misconceived, unpublishable, in parts unreadable and by and large unlistenable, the whole thing had started to lower over Benjamin like an oppressive cloud.”
Since Benjamin is a lot like Coe—the school, the music, the books—you’re not quite sure whether this is deliberately disarming, or if it’s Coe simply telling it like it is from his jaundiced authorial perspective. Don’t worry, Jonathan: Middle England may be shapeless, sprawling and prolix, but it doesn’t mean it’s over-ambitious, misconceived and unreadable. On the contrary. It’s a huge attempt at coming…