Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, by Jonathan Coe

It’s been a long time since I’ve hated a novel as much as Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. I mean, wow. This book is so bad that it can’t help but acknowledge – inadvertently or otherwise – its own awfulness at odd intervals. It tells the “story” of pathetic fortysomething Londoner Max Sim who quits his job as a customer service rep at a department store to become a salesman of environmentally friendly toothbrushes and then travels north to the Shetland Islands in a Prius as part of an advertising stunt. It’s also about the financial crisis of 2008, Max’s estranged relationship with his poet father, a boat race around the globe, Max’s strained romances with a variety of indistinguishable women (he seems to fall in love every 40 or 50 pages), his obsession with a Chinese mother-daughter combination he spies at an Australian restaurant, and a subterfuge involving his ex wife. Naturally, none of this bullshit holds together and I was tempted several times to quit on this book and throw it across the room. I managed to finish it, knowing that I’ll never see the $31 I paid for this hardcover again.

You realize early on that you’re in for a long slog, not simply because this novel tells you you’re in for a long slog (and it does!) but because you find yourself wanting to line-edit the first 20 or 30 pages. Many of Coe’s sentences at the beginning of this book are in desperate need of tightening up and expose an occasional slip into questionable grammar. (From page 4: “But they didn’t seem to be entirely absorbed in each other, the way the Chinese woman and her daughter did.”) There are also several inconsistencies of character that undermine the book’s narrative credibility: at one point Max tells us, “I hardly ever read novels, never mind trying to write one” – this, despite having used the word “mellifluous” in the previous paragraph. Small quibbles, maybe, but these examples of sloppy articulation and jarring, hairpin turns in characterization do a lot to keep the reader from settling comfortably into the world of the novel. It’s not that we can’t trust this unreliable narrator (and Max is about as unreliable as they come); it’s that we can’t trust Coe to handle that unreliability well.

One of the more annoying shticks of this novel is the contrived way it creates opportunities for Max to take a break from being the narrator. He stumbles upon several lengthy pieces of writing that play tangential roles in his story, which he shares with us in full: a letter given to him by a woman he meets (and falls in love with!) while in transit between Sydney and London; a short story by his ex wife; a confession written by an old flame; an excerpt of memoir from his troubled father. I have no idea what Coe’s thinking was behind this recklessly obvious approach to structure (to say nothing of the novel’s subsequent reliance on absurd coincidences); all I can say is that it leaves the impression that The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim was perhaps stitched together with excerpts from six or seven aborted novels that the author just couldn’t let go. The wire meant to bind up these half-cooked ideas is the banking collapse of 2008 and the moral conundrums that it revealed. But as Richard Ford once put it so eloquently about 9/11, this historical moment hasn’t had time to sink down into the soil and bubble back up into something one can use in real literature. Coe’s preoccupation with the credit crisis will date the novel horribly.

I do want to say something positive, though. There are points in this book where Coe shows that he can write quite beautifully. Here he is, for example, describing a wealthy neighbourhood: “The car glided in its usual silent manner through these quiet, dark, secretive streets. The houses seemed massive and imposing, and there were few lights on in any of the windows.” And there are sections, particularly in the memoir excerpt from Max’s father, that show a fluidity, depth of character and skillful descriptions that are deeply pleasurable. But I suppose this is what makes the book all the more frustrating; that Coe couldn’t implement and maintain this understated poise from the first page to the last.

I won’t even speak of the ending to this novel. It is cheap. It is trite, contrived, lazy and an absolute cop-out. Through it, Coe shows his complete disregard for his readers. And readers of this blog will be lessened intellectually if I even describe it. All I say is that was an awful kicker at the end of an awful, awful book. Let’s just leave it at that.

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