Few authors are funnier than Jonathan Coe, and his latest book is as sharp as ever. But its attempt to redefine the state-of the-nation novel is too contrivedby Sam Leith / May 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe (Penguin, £12.99)
We know, or think we know, roughly what a state-of-the-nation novel looks like, don’t we? It looks something like Blake Morrison’s South of the River or Sebastian Faulks’s A Week In December. It’s usually urban; it generally has a wide sweep; it takes in a range of representative characters; it’s not always a comic novel but it’s always a comedy; its ancestors are panoramic and Victorian.
Jonathan Coe knows all about those: he’s written a couple of them himself. But in The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, he departs. Here is something that undoubtedly has the feel of a state-of-the-nation novel. But it isn’t any of the things I describe above: it has no geographical centre, it’s framed (flashbacks aside) by a single long car-journey, and it’s interested in one character and one character only. Most of all, though it’s a comic novel, it’s not a comedy.
If I understand Coe’s project rightly, this is a state-of-the-nation novel for an age where that sort of book can no longer be written. That great Middlemarch-y, Bleak House-y web of interconnectedness—connections of physical proximity and dependence; established social circumstance; a material economy—is now in wisps.
What’s left is abstract international money, the now-familiar Ballardian interzones of orbital roads and airports, and the “terrible privacy” of Coe’s title—a world in which people are constantly surveilled but never seen, constantly in touch but never connected, constantly on the move but never getting anywhere. This is a book about loneliness as a national, even international, condition.
The loneliness is that of the eponymous Maxwell Sim, a doomed toothbrush salesman on a mission from Reading to the Outer Hebrides in a Toyota Prius. Maxwell is a self-hating and incurious dullard. As he opens his story, he warns that he is “not very good at describing” things, and asks Eeyorishly, “are you looking forward to the next 300 pages?” Later, he reports (wink, wink) that his ex-wife used to describe him as “the kind of person who will never have his life changed by a book.”
Maxwell explains his second name to strangers as “like the thing you put in a phone,” though I don’t think it’s fanciful to see an echo of the world’s most famous virtual doll’s house, the videogame The Sims, in his name. Maxwell lives an all-but-virtual life, and—Coe’s story implies—that is a condition of the times.
As his story opens, he is in Australia visiting his father, a man with whom he has never really had any sort of relationship. He is emerging from a six-month depression brought about by the break-up of his marriage. To pile on the pathos, he is sitting alone in a restaurant on Valentine’s day—his father having refused to come out with him—on the night before he is due to return to England and his empty flat in Watford with its sad Ikea furniture.
Around him in the restaurant are people sharing tables, but whose attention is elsewhere: couples checking their phones for text messages; a family whose children are playing their Nintendo DSs; an elderly couple who sit side-by-side so they can watch the view rather than talking. But he sees a young woman and her daughter who are intently and delightedly engaged with each other. They seem to represent everything he longs for and is incapable of having.
Returning from the loo, he determines—“tense with nervousness but also a sense of freedom and relief”—to talk to them. He gets back to find them gone. A series of cruelly comic missed connections follow. Determined to forge a bond with another human being, Maxwell engages the man next to him on the plane in conversation. He falls into a long dreary monologue about himself, which is pretty well advanced by the time he realises that the man has died of a heart attack in his seat.
He meets a girl on his onward flight (she has the brilliantly alienating job of travelling the world recording departure announcements in international airports, for adulterers to play while on the phone in order to cover their tracks) and gets her number. Then he is mugged (by another stranger he fleetingly imagined might be friendly) and loses the mobile phone containing that number… and so on, and so forth. The world of the novel—and, as a slightly questionable metafictional coda suggests, the author of the novel—is cruel to Maxwell.
But we live in a society where this is possible. Maxwell tells us: “Mankind has, as you may have noticed, become very inventive about devising new ways for people to avoid talking to each other, and I’d been taking full advantage of the most recent ones.”
Maxwell has 70 Facebook friends, and no real ones. His answerphone tells only of a missed dental appointment, and 166 of the 167 new emails he finds when he gets home from Australia are headed: “You must be The Real Man with huge dignity,” “Fornicate like a macho!” or “The hard friend in your pants will look up into the sky.” Coe has a great ear for the register of that sort of thing.
But one of those emails is from a former colleague who ends up offering him a job. A company selling environmentally friendly toothbrushes has had an idea for a publicity stunt: they want to send four salesmen to the furthest points in the British isles—north, south, east and west. Maxwell has a week to take a consignment of these brushes to the Outer Hebrides in the company’s Prius. So it’s over a week of the terrible privacy of this car that the bulk of the story is set.
“Privacy” is generally regarded as a good. But “terrible privacy” is the epithet used to describe the condition of Donald Crowhurst, a round-the-world yachtsman driven mad by isolation and the prospect of failure, with whom Maxwell increasingly identifies as he heads north. As the story of Coe’s protagonist is unpacked, another cognate of the word—“privation”—seems to shadow its meaning.
Maxwell constantly eats alone. He prefers the comforting familiarity of chain restaurants. His travels are punctuated by ridiculous coffees (“skinny latte with a shot of maple syrup”) and dull panini (that plural, as a running joke points out, used illiterately as a singular all over the country—and whatever happened to the toasted sandwich?) in motorway service stations.
He takes detours, drops in on old acquaintances, and tries to connect with his wife and daughter, but things go astray. “There was still a limit on how much human company I could tolerate in one day.” The relationship that comes to mean most to him, as his mind disintegrates, is the one with his sat nav, whom he names Emma: “I was beginning to think that, in Emma, I had found something like the perfect partner.”
Only by pretending to be a stranger on Mumsnet, has he achieved a degree of intimacy with his ex-wife. The key to his father’s personal life is 20 years of postcards sent to an empty flat. Intimacy and understanding come not through direct contact but through dead-drops and lost letters, oblique fragments of text. In each of the four sections (references to TS Eliot’s Four Quartets run through the book, hinting at the range of Coe’s ambition) there is a story-within-a-story that Maxwell reads, and each takes him closer to the past.
The uncle of a new acquaintance lends him a book about the lost mariner, Crowhurst, that allows him to interpret his own situation; his ex-wife, a wannabe writer, produces a short story that refracts his past in one way, and sends it unwittingly to his online alter-ego; he chances on an essay by the sister of an old friend that refracts his past in another way; he finally comes on a memoir by his father that casts light on all that has gone before.
Coe’s book is as funny and well-written as you’d expect: even the banality of Maxwell’s mind is rendered, deadpan, with wonderful lightness. It is archly and artfully structured, too; though I can’t, without spoiling a plot that delivers revelations and switchbacks in careful sequence, go deeply into how.
But—unceasingly enjoyable and intriguing to read though it is —it does suffer from that virtue too. You constantly feel the hand of the author in it—not just in its shape but in the comic contrivances of its plot and the symbolic arrangement of its themes.
That stifles some of the breath out of Maxwell; and it makes the thematic concerns—the state-of-the-nation stuff—seem willed rather than reported. There’s a dreadful heavy-handedness, for instance, to the satiric treatment of the credit crunch.
Dropping in the author at the end, albeit it gives us a jinxy payoff, compounds rather than escapes the problem. Loneliness, as it turns out, isn’t the only thing about the postmodern condition to be regretted.