This was heading for a four star review but..... read on.
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim explores many contemporary themes, among them our ability to not actually communicate properly, in a world where communication is supposedly easy, the effects of a marriage breakdown and the loneliness this brings and how one town in the UK looks very much like any other. However, form the outset, Max is not an entirely likeable character, and whilst I recognise many of the themes explored, felt it difficult to empathize with him.
The events early in the book lead him to making a journey to the Shetland Islands in order to deliver on his new employers promise of "We go further"; on the way, Max meets characters from his life, and at each stage learns something new about himself, or his family which causes him to reflect on why he is where and what he is.
The book is readable, and by no means poor, but I did not think in the same league as Coe's earlier novels, particularly What a Carve Up!and The Rotters' Club. Pages seemed to turn very quickly, as you wondered what would happen next on his journey, with his new-found friend, the Sat-Nav in his car.
However, there was just "something" missing...and I cannot put my finger on what. Maybe it was my inability to empathize, or just my lack of understanding of Max's view on life in general.
Now, back to my initial line. As I said, the book was not "bad" and was heading for four stars, but the ending..... oh my word the ending. I am not one to spoil it for anyone, but yes Denise (another reviewer here) I too felt cheated, as having read the best part of 350 pages, I thought as a reader, I deserved more than that! Too "clever" for anyone, methinks!
I'm taking precious moments from my life to write a review that in all likelihood no-one will really read and appreciate. Am I doing it to enhance my identity in a world that increasingly anonymises you and substitutes real human contact with keyboards and internet profiles? Or is it in effect a minor piece of vanity publishing?
This is pseudo dilemma that would appeal to the protagonist of this tale, the ever bewildered and alienated Maxwell Sim. His life has disintegrated in true wet cardboard style, leaving a soggy, easily torn fabric for a soul, prey to inappropriate yearnings for attachment, looking for love in all the wrong places.
All but ignored by a cold and distant father, bereft of a mother, on the wrong end of his own family's breakdown, Maxwell is in an airport in Sydney, having just endured another failed attempt to communicate with his father. He spies a mother and child in what seems real and warm loving relationship, wrapped up in each other and playing cards. This is the twitch on the thread that starts him on a forlorn journey back to England and then up to the wilds of Scotland on a doomed sales venture. Along the way he will meet a cast of characters, all of which he misunderstands, tries for an inappropriate connection, or romance, most of the time all of the above. He learns of the story of Donald Crowhurst, the tragic figure who went fatally mad trying to sail round the world, and then fabricate its completion, and then to his horror, Sim finds his life and Crowhurst's becoming one...
There is much that I enjoyed with this book. It is funny in places, the writing clever and engaging, and the depression, pathos and bathos of Sim and his journey are both those of a comic hero and emblematic of a wider feeling of cultural and social alienation that all of us from time to time may be feeling. There are very neat parallels with Crowhurst's story and Sim's and even all our lives in a culture obsessed by celebrity and achievement, and some very clever points are made about the corrupt thinking of financiers that has led us to recession. These include a story within the story about gambling systems in horse racing in the 60's that lead to ruin, clearly meant to flag the systems that have brought us to our own current mess.
The 'cleverness' of the writing, however, also proved, for me, to be the ruin of the book. The novel does grow increasingly implausible, as Sim discovers key documents that throw open doors in his past in a highly convenient and contrived manner. You forgive this as you are in the spirit of the novel, thinking that this is a novel that is playing with themes of co-incidence and chance. Coe plays with different narration styles with these documents, and they provide fascinating sub narratives that do propel the main story forward. But all became lost, for me, by Coe's coup de theatre, in a closing encounter that has its roots in the deliberately alienating devices used by Bertolt Brecht and more recently by B S Johnson, whose life and work Coe recently celebrated in a splendid biography. It says, "You weren't stupid enough to buy into this were you?" And it just pissed me off. It's a clever-clever "what an audacious writer am I" trick that for me betrays the reader. Again, this is my view, but you read a novel to enter into an imaginary world. Said world needs integrity for this to work. In his closing pages, Coe gives his novel none. Ultimately this is extremely disappointing, partly because what has gone before is so good.
Maxwell Sim is a classic `everyman', someone who we can all identify with to some degree. He's slightly befuddled by modern life, technology and dating etiquette (he has to ask his teenage daughter what it means when a colleague ends her text message with an `x`) and has managed to become estranged from his family and most of his friends.
Following the departure of his wife and daughter and six months off work with depression, he eventually resigns from his uninspiring job in After-Sales Customer Liaison (aka Returns) for a department store, to take up a seemingly crazy job offer which involves selling eco-friendly toothbrushes in one of the most remote locations in Britain. His time on the road gives Max the opportunity to catch up with old friends and drag a few skeletons out of the closet, but, above all, he gets to spend some time alone (his terrible privacy) to reflect on the hand life has dealt him. I say "alone" ... he does become a bit too emotionally-dependent on his SatNav, even giving `her' a name and seeking her advice on more than just the quickest route to take and how to avoid traffic jams.
Jonathan Coe has a wonderful way of making mundane events seem humorous and slightly bizarre, and he has a brilliant ear for surreal dialogue (a great example being the hilarious three-way conversation Max has with the parents of an old school friend). Max is an unreliable but very endearing narrator, and his blundering attempts to make friends and his lack of insight into how others perceive him are painful to witness at times (but also very funny).
This book sees Jonathan Coe back on familiar territory after departing slightly from his usual style with his last book, The Rain Before It Falls, and for me it combined elements of two of his best novels - What A Carve Up and The Rotters' Club.
I see that opinion is split regarding the ending. I'm undecided - it's certainly different but I did feel a bit cheated as I wanted Maxwell's story to have a `proper' ending. It'll be interesting to see what other readers make of it.
on 23 January 2011
Firstly, I'll say how much I love Jonathan Coe's books. He is easily the equal of our most revered living novelists Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, if not, dare I say it, their superior, yet rarely gets his due from critics and prize juries. I was absolutely loving this book, thought it was a return to form and was on course to award it a whopping five stars until I got to chapter 22. Maxwell Sim does not, at first, seem like he's going to be stimulating company for 300+ pages but it's a tribute to Coe's talent that he makes him so. The 3 page monologue he delivers to the passenger sitting next to him on the aeroplane (by the end of this speech, the man is dead)is hilarious, and from that moment on I was hooked. As ever, Coe writes with incredible warmth and compassion about life's losers, the anonymous little people which most literary novelists ignore. Let's face it, Sim is like rather a lot of us in modern Britain, curiously classless, no doubt he regards himself as middle class, yet works in an unskilled, unfullfilling role in retail (I felt some painful pangs of recognition here). He has really put his finger on the nub about the increasing loneliness of life in the 21st century, when technology and social networking sites supposedly should have made us all feel less alone. And you'll definitely want to know more about Donald Crowhurst and his extraordinary story after reading this. But, oh dear, the ending!!! I have to knock off 2 stars for that. And I'm not just talking about the irritating final chapter, which I could ignore as an afterword. (yes I know Coe loves BS Johnson, and I do too, but whereas Johnson integrates his post-modern tricks into the narrative from very early on, here it felt tacked-on, and jarred with the rest of the book.) I agree with an earlier reviewer, G.Morgan, that the shock 'revelation' about Max just feels psychologically implausible, especially when it's pointed out to him by a complete stranger who's only been talking to him for a few minutes. And especially as we've already had the same revelation about his own father, (which did ring true, and was foreshadowed in the text). A twist for the sake of a twist, which, for me, sadly undermined all the great writing that had gone before.
I loved this book - odd, perhaps, because the main character, Maxwell Sim, is far from lovable, or even likeable. As his wife notes, he doesn't even like himself. At the start of the book, Maxwell decides to chat with a stranger on a plane. The man makes clear that he doesn't want to join in. "I wasn't having that" comments Maxwell to us, and launches into a rambling speech that only ends when the victim drops dead (it takes Maxwell a while to notice). What else isn't likeable about Maxwell? If a woman is merely polite, he assumes that she must be falling for him (eventually he takes this to extremes and strikes up a relationship with his satnav, holding conversations with it and calling it Emma). When he is mugged, he not only hands over his phone but gives his attacker a clear description of how to get to the station. He isn't very observant - driving up the M40 from High Wycombe he remarks that the countryside is all the same, though he must have passed through the magnificent Stokenchurch cutting. (In his defence, I can't totally dislike someone who remembers where he was when John Smith died).
It is fascinating to see Sim's history gradually peeled back in the four parts of this book as he takes a journey. Each is named after one of the four elements and includes a "discovered" text or story which fills in part of the background - beginning, though, with an account of Donald Crowhurst, a 1960s would be round the world sailor whose voyage collapsed into fantasy and with whom Sim sees parallels (though his journey is less ambitious). These might seem rather heavily done, but you have to read to the very last page before it becomes completely clear what is really going on.
The idea of a man in his mid 40s embarking on an epic journey as a way of escape, or of understanding himself better, or both, didn't of course originate with Crowhurst (or Sim) - see for example Sailing Alone Around the World for the full round the world experience or Coasting (Picador Books) for a more thoughtful and introspective version. It works for Sim, giving us a perspective on how he came to be the unlikeable man he is, and complementary insights into his father (perhaps that aspect is a little too neat, though). In the end the solution for both of them is similar: but will Maxwell be able to do what is required?
In the course of Maxwell's journey, Jonathan Coe ruminates on a number of themes recognisable from his earlier books - the homegenisation of the high street (Maxwell approves of this: he likes to be able to visit a strange town and go into a familiar restaurant. He also likes motorway service stations), the loss - in Britain - of the ability, or desire, to actually make things, symbolised by the loss of the Longbridge car factory (whose fate was described in The Closed Circle. Indeed, a character in one of the included narratives goes on about the superiority of spirit to mere physicality: he is also responsible for drawing Maxwell's father into a world of gambling on exotic derivatives, to his loss).
There is just so much that's good about this book, I could go on and on, like Maxwell. Better to stop and just say: read this book!
on 3 July 2011
I'm normally a huge fan of Jonathan Coe and What a Carve Up, the House of Sleep and the Rotters' Club rank among my favourite books. This book, a book equivalent of a road movie, has at its heart the under-confident, rather obsessive and nerdishly comedic character of Maxwell Sim, who meets a wide variety of people both in Australia, where the book starts and ends and in between in his subsequent drive up Great Britain as part of a sales pitch for toothbrushes.
There are plenty of good sideswipes at the anachronisms and impersonality of modern living, some amusing episodes - notably the chapter about the man beside him on the plane dying and Maxwell prattling on totally unaware - and well-drawn characters. As usual, the plot is very cleverly worked.
But the mobile nature of the "road-book" meant a lot of characters packed in and only lasting a few pages, which did not give enough time really to develop them, and then subsequent references back pages later after I'd forgotten the detail of them. And some of the humour, particularly the sales talk of the toothbrush entrepreneurs, seemed forced and did not work for me.
In my view, overall a novel and original concept, which usually worked quite well but was occasionally annoying.
on 18 September 2012
Not sure why I'm bothering to review this book, as several other reviewers have already put down thoughts very similar to my own, and probably in more eloquent ways. I'm no great reader of fiction, and it's a credit to Jonathan Coe that he's been my entry point into this world, even if it was - at first - for trivial reasons like naming a novel after an LP by Hatfield and the North (The Rotter's Club) and even name-checking Henry Cow (another obscure prog band) elsewhere.
Most of you will be familiar with the gist of this book by now, and may have been tempted (as I was) to read the spoilers. The key things for potential readers is this: looking at the reviews you should know the ending is not really satisfactory, particularly having ploughed through what is at times a slightly turgid read. I won't give much away, except to say I sensed a conceptual similarity to the ending of Lindsay Anderson's 1973 film (very much Coe's era) 'O Lucky Man', starring Malcolm McDowell. In the final scenes of Mick Travis' episodic travels, we find him auditioning for the very film we've just been watching, a quite brilliant device by the standards of its day. Expect something similar here.
The ending is a real shame, as up to that point I'd been absorbed and looking forward to an ingenious, tying-of-loose-ends type ending as found in House of Sleep. I'd also felt the book had plenty of scope for being serialised for TV, but not now. Better luck next time.
UPDATE (written about 5 mins after first writing it): Just read JC's thoughts on the novel on his website and he admits O Lucky Man was indeed an influence.
This is the second book by Coe that I have read, and like the first (What a Carve Up!) it is srangely fragmented. In fact, towards the end, in recounting his adventures to a stranger, the eponymous Maxwell could be speaking of the novel itself: "...(it) didn't feel much like a proper story at all...just a series of random, unconnected episodes: encounters, mainly; encounters with strange and unexpected people who had all done something, in small ways, to change the course of my life over the last few weeks".
Having said that, I did enjoy the novel, although the mood changed frequently and it seemed to lack cohesion. For example, the first chapter (a hilarious account of a plane journey) was very funny indeed, and I expected the rest of the novel to be similarly humorous. But I didn't find it so. The mood chops and changes as the hero travels north, the boot of his car full of toothbrushes (which he is supposed to be taking to Scotland to sell); visiting his ex-wife and his daughter; calling in on his father's flat (his father has emigrated to Australia) and finding papers which tell him much he didn't know about his family; nearly sleeping with someone he meets along the way; talking (and even proposing) to his Satnav. This last I found heavy-handed, if it was supposed to be funny, and for me it added nothing to the novel. But no matter. Because he writes so well, Coe manages to make an entertaining story out of not very much, and it made for an enjoyable read. As for the ending, opinion seems to be very much divided. I found it surprising and entertaining, and was quite happy for the story to end in this way, but I can understand the views of those who did not.
Maxwell Sim is a dull but decent man - very aware of his own shortcomings. His relationship with his father is non-existent, his wife and daughter have left him and he has few real friends (despite the 70+ on Facebook!). At the beginning of the book he is recovering from clinical depression - having been off work for many months.
His story begins in Sydney where his is visiting his father. During a lonely visit to a restaurant he becomes fascinated by a Chinese woman and her young daughter who are enjoying a companionable time together. He envies their intimacy and obvious affection for one another - feelings he never had in his own upbringing.
Back in England Maxwell links up with an old acquaintance and goes on the road with a view to selling ecological toothbrushes. His father has requested that he picks up something for him at his old flat in Lichfield and Maxwell decides to use the opportunity of travelling north to visit his wife and daughter as well as some old family friends. Along the way there are some confusing revelations about his family background and many missed opportunities at finding happiness. Missed opportunities are a feature of the book.
How can you fail to like a character whose most intimate relationship is with his Sat-Nav? As usual with Coe's work this is sad, wry and funny. I thought that this book was going to be a fairly straightforward tale of loss and redemption. But, no, the writer decides to surprise us! I won't spoil the ending......
Superb writing and excellent story-telling.
on 10 January 2011
I read few novels and was given this as a gift. I approached it with some trepidation as some of the main themes seemed rather too close for comfort, but it started as an easy read which became compulsive as Sim's journey neared its climax.
I found the satnav device overworked - it was faintly amusing (hardly 'hilarious satire' as per the cover comments) but became tedious by the time it had served its purpose. As others have said, the Crowhurst analogy seemed to add little except pages and a character link or two.
But the ending was a disappointment and I felt somewhat cheated; too clever by half, and then ultimately a contrived cop-out.