VINE VOICEon 5 October 2011
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.