Map of Blue Book Balloon

8 December 2015

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

Number 11, or Tales that Witness Madness
Jonathan Coe
Viking, 2015
HB, 351pp

I bought my copy from Wallingford Bookshop.

Several years ago Jonathan Coe wrote in The Guardian about his book What a Carve Up!, published in 1994. Number 11 is a sequel, of sorts, to WACU but you won't need to have read that to enjoy it. (I haven't). Indeed Coe gives the game away, including an extract from the notebooks of a dead film critic:

"Rachel turned to the 'W' section and soon found What a Whopper.

Lame British comedy, she read, about a bunch of beatniks who travel to Loch Ness to build a model of the monster.

1962. Sequel to What a Carve Up! (1961)? Not really. Two of the same actors.

*Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is oblique, slippery."

Number 11 includes many references to the Winshaw family, five of whom apparently dies a violent death in the earlier book, and indeed there are some actual living, breathing Winshaws, and there is some thematic continuity between the books, both of which (again, judging WACU from reviews and from what Coe himself has written about) are pretty scathing of right wing, free market politics and those who support it. But if it is sequel, it is definitely a sequel which is not really a sequel.

Coe's 2011 essay (part of which is repeated and put into the mouth of a character here) alone would make this clear. While WACU may have been satire, Coe argued that satire let the powerful and privileged off the hook. Like a court jester, perhaps, it enables frustrations and tensions to be discharged with no dangerous effects, ultimately frustrating the urge for change. It's hard to imagine Coe committing satire after that.  The book is certainly scathing in places about 21st century life - about those who seek to put a price on everything (the widow of that dead film critic writes a book called Monetizing Wonder), about the super-rich whose investment homes are killing parts of London, about clickbait journalists, reality TV, the need for food-banks and tax avoidance (to give only a few).

But the scathingness(?) is part of a dialogue that Number 11 seems to hold with itself. There is no escape to a golden past. The film critic was obsessed with tracking down an old black and while short he saw once, as a schoolboy, in the 60s and his widow Laura sees this as a simply a yearning for a safe, lost world, free from multichannel TV, safe from choice. "The whole thing that defined the situation , and the whole beauty of it, as far as he was concerned, was passivity. Other people were making choices for him." So determined is Laura to keep her small son from looking back to a golden childhood that she seems to go out of her way to make his life unpleasant.

The loss of innocence - or the absence of innocence - seems the dominant theme in the book, repeated and reworked in countless ways from the death of David Kelly to the crushing of a faded singer's hopes of a comeback via a celebrities-in-the-jungle show to a friendship between two young women destroyed by a misunderstanding over Snapchat.

Those two women form the core of the book: one of them, Rachel, is seen at the beginning with her brother. She about to suffer a disillusionment even then. Rachel then appears as the force behind the story, writing down what has happened to her in order to make sense of it, before her friend Laura is introduced. With digressions to bring Rachel's friend Alison and her mum Val (the ex-singer) and Rachel's university tutor (Laura) the book moves through a variety of narrators and forms.  There are emails, newspaper articles and a section that seems to be imitating a sub Sherlock Holmes detective story - until either Coe tires of that game or his excellent writing reasserts itself and banishes the pastiche.  All this is unified by the constant recurrence of the number 11 (as a house number, on a a bus, the lowest level of a basement extension, a table number at an awards dinner...)

Without that thread, one might begin to regard this as a series of linked short stories rather than a single novel, albeit a series with many characters in common. Indeed Coe is almost wasteful in the way he drops characters and situations. I'd like to have learned more about some of them: there could be a whole book in Laura's life, perhaps, or that of her husband Roger with his obsessive hunt for that film, The Crystal Garden (let alone the Mad Bird Woman of Beverley or the Chinese immigrant Lu). Perhaps Coe will write some of these books - he does seem to have a habit of picking things up again (as Number 11 itself shows).

However the sheer heterogeneity of the book does make it very hard to come to an overall judgement. I think perhaps the most apposite verdict would be that of Miss Jean Brodie: for those that like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.

For my part I loved it and after a slow start in the first part of the first section, ended up reading it in longer and longer chunks, finally enthralled by the ending (though I'm still not sure what actually happened). Others perhaps will stick to the verdict Coe cites in that essay: "It's become a matter of honour for most reviewers in this country (and many readers) to remind me as often as possible that What a Carve Up! is my best novel...."

Right, I'm off now to read What a Carve Up! and see what the fuss was about.

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