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"Does narrative serve any purpose? I wonder about that.",
This review is from: The "Rotters' Club" (Paperback)
A novel of enormous reach, Coe attempts to give epic significance to the 1970's in Birmingham, England. Abandoning the extremely tight, limited focus he employed in The House of Sleep, Coe here employs a huge cast of characters, eight or ten of them teenagers (somewhat difficult to keep track of because they are not yet fully formed or unique), along with their parents and their parents' lovers, their brothers and sisters and the brothers' and sisters' lovers, and their teachers and some of their lovers.
Starting with a meeting in 2003 between the adult children of some of the characters from the 1970's, the novel switches back and forth in time through several different points of view, offering insights about what has happened in the interim. The teenagers' lives are depicted in minute detail as they work on school magazines, collect new rock albums, create their own bands, score with girlfriends, and do all the superficial things teenagers do the world over, told from the well-developed, if not particularly compelling, perspective of the `70's.
Coe can be very funny, and his view of teenage life is often amusing, but the teenagers also reveal their intolerance of differences, their casual cruelty, doubts about religion, ignorance of the political system, and general insulation from the forces which are shaping their world. Their parents' lives are completely separate from their children's, dealing with union vs. management issues, Labour vs. Tory political goals, a stagnant economy, resentment over immigration, IRA activity, some anti-semitism, and a belief that their dreams probably will not come true. These huge and important themes seem a bit jarring when juxtaposed against the superficial, day-to-day activities of the teenagers who are the main characters.
Coe has enormous, very obvious talents, but this book feels fragmented, with too many characters pursuing too many different ends, the ultimate goal seeming to be the recreation of the entire sociopolitical history of 1970's Birmingham. At the end of 400+ pages of this book, Coe himself states that a second volume will continue this story, perhaps the author's acknowledgment that his reach has exceeded his grasp with this one.