Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (Jonathan Coe)

--The blurb--
"Maxwell Sim can't make a meaningful connection. His absent father is preoccupied with poetry; he maintains an e-mail correspondence with his estranged wife under a false identity; his daughter prefers her BlackBerry to his conversation; and his best friend won't return his calls. He has seventy friends on Facebook, but nobody to talk to. Max tries to stir himself out of this rut by quitting his job to accept a strange business proposition: to drive a Prius full of toothbrushes from London to the remote Shetland Islands in a misguided promotional campaign for a dental-hygiene company. Instead, he makes a series of awkward, cruelly enlightening visits to figures from his past, falling in love with the soothing voice of his GPS system ('Emma' ) en route. Eventually he comes to wonder if perhaps it's his utter lack of self-knowledge that's hampering his ability to form actual relationships."

--The review--
Having read Jonathan Coe's works avidly for the past ten years or so, it would perhaps be fair to say that by this time my expectations were almost unreasonably high, after unequivocally enjoying every one of his books that I had read and often visiting many for rereads and never tiring of their narrative twists and turns and character developments.

So if I was disappointed by The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim it was perhaps not entirely unexpected. The main character grated on my nerves in a manner that Coe's protagonists had not done in his previous works. Worse still, this did not even have the pleasant side effect of entertaining me. Compounding this was the "product placement" that I talked to Coe about in my recent interview with him; to me, it is lazy writing that limits the reader's own visualisation - something that I did not imagine Coe being guilty of. As a consequence, I believe that the novel will date more quickly than his previous ones - he is writing about a time period in which we still live, which has not yet passed, and so which cannot yet take on the feel of nostalgia that, for instance, The Rotters' Club has: it is difficult to know what, ten years from now, we will look back on with fondness, and what, in our minds, will just seem tired or insignificant.

However, The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim is not without its merits. In spite of the aspects of it that made me cringe, we do wonder how all of the novel's seemingly different components will eventually link up, and Coe guides us successfully to the conclusion of these. His portrayal of the protagonist's descent into insanity is also far more convincing than others who have tried similar tricks recently (yes, Alastair Campbell, I'm looking at you), and it shows with dexterity how easily we can all find ourselves getting into a rut if we are not careful. The novel's investigation of loneliness and privacy is also an intriguing one (even if I, unlike Coe, believe that this could have been achieved without the "product placement" effect), and the fact that at the end of the novel Maxwell's own personal, spiritual journey to find his own sense of self-worth is in fact only just beginning is a realistic and moving resolution; to have him waltz off into the sunset with the illusion that life just works out magically would not have been anywhere near as satisfying. Having such an imperfect narrator at the novel's forefront is almost like holding a mirror up to ourselves, showing us all of our own flaws, and prompts us to ask ourselves how we too can move forward with our lives on our individual quest to vanquish various insecurities. The style in which this is all expressed may not be to everybody's taste, but the message is powerful and bound to reach out to the majority of people in some way that they can easily identify with personally.

The end of the novel is curious, as it serves as a criticism of itself and of the genre of novel-writing in general. While I can see why Coe included it, it is ultimately unnecessary: by the end of the novel, the flaws of it have faded into the background and we are left with the complexities of the plot and of Maxwell's character. We do not need the author to step in at this stage; his craft has already done its work, and it is these intricacies and layers and faults inherent in the novel that perhaps make it one of Coe's most intriguing brainchildren: while his other books are straightforward to the point of becoming instantly-loved and often-reread modern classics, this almost demands to be reread not to be wholly enjoyed but to be unravelled so that we as readers may engage not only in the uncomfortable journey of Maxwell Sim but also in our own distinctly awkward voyages into the centres of ourselves.

Other works by Jonathan Coe
The Accidental Woman (1987)
A Touch of Love (1989)
The Dwarves of Death (1990)
What A Carve Up! (1994)
The House of Sleep (1997)
The Rotters' Club (2001)
The Closed Circle (2004)
The Rain Before It Falls (2007)

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