‘The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim’ by Jonathan Coe

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan CoeI really enjoyed The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe (much more so than The Rain Before It Falls, which I didn’t even finish), but the last few pages seemed odd and I don’t know if they were entirely necessary. While Coe’s insertion of himself as a character didn’t piss me off as much as “Douglas Coupland” appearing in JPod, it didn’t seem a natural fit with the rest of the story, either. While the final coda was reminiscent of What A Carve Up‘s repeated refrain that the narrator can never die (at least, not until the end) the conclusion of Maxwell Sim (both the character and the book) seemed to be handled less elegantly than in Coe’s earlier work.

The concept of author insertion comes up here and there. As mentioned, Coupland’s done it and I believe that Stephen King himself pops up in one of the Dark Tower novels (although this was written during his recovery from the traffic accident that nearly killed him, so perhaps we can excuse it on compassionate grounds). While I’m not so arrogant as to put myself in this company of successful authors, I have put a proxy of myself into one of my novellas before and it’s only when I see that if these guys can’t do it successfully, maybe I shouldn’t attempt it either. It seems to be the point at which the author stops serving the needs of the reader in order to satisfy his or her own. (Do female novelists insert themselves into their stories? The only examples I can think of are by male authors.) I don’t think that Coe’s appearance at the end of Maxwell Sim is egregiously bad, but it’s an odd way to end a novel. I can’t imagine Christopher Nolan popping up at the end of Inception and explaining that he came up with the idea when he fell asleep on holiday and woke up to see his kids playing with a spinning top, before adding a few other titbits about the making of the film before saying “well, that about wraps it up – g’night folks!”. Woody Allen might do it, or maybe Wes Anderson. Spike Lee almost did it at the beginning of Jungle Fever, but thought better of it. The Coen Brothers would probably relish it, but I suspect they’d make most of the facts up, just to mess with the audience. Anyway, this digression gets away from the basic point, which is that as readers we don’t really want or need to know where an author’s ideas come from. Although it’s probably the question that’s asked most often, the truth is that we probably don’t want to know. The truth is almost always depressingly mundane and the effect of finding out is akin to understanding how a magician does their tricks, leaving one muttering, “You mean that’s it?” and feeling vaguely ill at ease. The truth is that we don’t want to know. We want to guess, to imagine a rich life of imagination rather than the banal truth of someone sitting at a keyboard and pressing buttons. It’s an instance where the reader is allowed to use their imagination and I think authors revealing their methods actually do the readers a disservice. It’s OK to do it in an interview or a Q&A, but to plonk it into one of your books just seems a bit shabby and robs the audience of the chance to work things out for themselves.

In the case of Maxwell Sim, long-standing readers of Jonathan Coe should find it easy to trace the inspirations and literary tropes. The themes of coincidence, memory and miscommunication are all present, but while they are all woven together with Coe’s typical delicacy, the story feels more intimate than most of his more recent works. While many miles are covered geographically, it doesn’t encompass the scope of the multi-generational arcs of The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle. If anything, it most resembles A Touch of Love,  with its awkward protagonist and the multiple epistolary sections that reveal the inner life of the characters through external observation. The fact that Maxwell Sim is a smaller book isn’t intended as a criticism. While it didn’t give me the rush of exhilaration that The House of Sleep or What A Carve Up! did on first reading (much of which could also be attributed to the excitement of finding a new author who speaks to you in a way you didn’t know possible), but it didn’t have the muted sense of disappointment that The Rotters’ Club or The Rain Before It Falls did, either. It’s perhaps indicative of where Coe is at in his career. After eight novels, he perhaps no longer feels the need to try grand experiments or prove any kind of point and so can settle into simply telling a story. While Maxwell Sim retains a definite political agenda, it manages to sit within the environment of the narrative, rather than straddling and squashing it as some of his other books have done. Similarly, there are examples of long run-on sentences, but not as conspicuous as the bombing passage in The Rotters’ Club. Perhaps it’s as innovative as some of his other work, but it’s a really good, new Jonathan Coe novel that manages to satisfy the things I love about his work without venturing into the aspects that interest me less.

And that, really, is all I’ve been wanting since I finished the last page of my paperback edition of The House of Sleep in 1998.

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