Friday, August 19, 2011

'The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim' by Jonathan Coe

19 August 2011

Jonathan Coe ranks alongside David Mitchell as one of my favourite contemporary novelists. Both write clever comic novels but their styles are quite different. Jonathan Coe’s writing appears more straightforward, without the linguistic tricks and stylistic ventriloquism that David Mitchell does so impressively. But Jonathan Coe’s more simple approach is deceptive: like David Lodge he writes light and accessible stories that contain complex themes and emotions which seep through the narrative rather than being rammed home. I’ve just finished reading Jonathan Coe’s latest novel ‘The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim’ (as an unabridged audio book, read by Colin Buchanan). After the more serious departure of ‘The Rain Before It Falls’ (reviewed here in August 2008), this is a return to the comic adventures of Coe’s best known works, ‘What a Carve Up’ and ‘The Rotters Club’. Like those novels, ‘The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim’ deals with themes of family relationships, technology and politics. In fact there are many themes lying beneath this humourous road trip across Britain (to sell toothbrushes in Shetland) and it was fun trying to decide which was the main purpose of the book. Is it really (as we are told towards the end) a study of the political and environmental implications of the toothbrush? Or is it a very subtle reflection on the banking crisis and the credit crunch? Surely the overriding focus is on loneliness: it is an often sad tale of a very lonely man suffering from depression who is embarking on a significant journey in both senses of the word. But, actually, I think ‘The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim’ is ultimately about the act of writing. Max tells us his remarkable story in the first person, making it clear that he is an inexperienced an unconfident writer. His narrative is interspersed with a series of pieces of writing by his friends and family that he discovers on his journey. But it is hard to tell what is real and what is invented: who is faking their stories? This is a tale about fiction (and meta-fiction), very easy to get into and enjoy on the surface with much food for thought lurking beneath.



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