Book review: Jonathan Coe's latest a humourous spy mystery set in 1950s world's fair

Jonathan Coe upholds the rich tradition of British comic writing with his latest novel, a highly entertaining espionage story set in Belgium during the 1958 World Expo, writes Matthew Peters

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Expo 58
Jonathan Coe

In Jonathan Coe's recent novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, the narrator stops off at a motorway service station. He orders a coffee and reflects that this "oasis of urban ordinariness", with its "windswept decking area", its "folded-up sun umbrellas flapping in today's breeze", and its 1990s "Habitat look" is really "my sort of place. The sort of place where I belonged". Maxwell Sim is completely at ease in the unreal environments of the modern leisure industry, but he is also aware that the artificiality of modern life might have a damaging effect on human relationships. These ambivalent feelings lie at the heart of the poignant comedy of that novel.

This theme is well suited to Coe's gift for wry comic depictions of human awkwardness and longing, silliness and sadness, banality and darkness. In his new novel, Expo 58, he has found a subject that allows him to explore the relations between the unreal and the actual on a wholly different scale. Much of the action takes place in the setting of the 1958 World Expo in Belgium - a historically real event in which artificial, temporary worlds were created by the participating countries in the form of pavilions designed to show off industrial and technological prowess.

The novel's protagonist, Thomas Foley, is a minor civil servant who has been selected to oversee the British pavilion for the six months of the Expo. The pavilion takes the form of a traditional British pub; Thomas was chosen because he is the son of a publican - a lineage which elicits both admiration and disdain in his upper-class superiors in the civil service.

Thomas takes on the commission reluctantly because he knows that his absence will cause difficulties to his already-strained relationship with his wife. Yet, it is precisely his boredom with domestic life that made it so exciting to be at the centre of an important world event, with all the glamour and ephemeral intensity that it entails.

The 1950s was an age in which many English people regarded the European mainland as homogeneously exotic: it was "abroad". The novel both embraces this attitude and transcends it. It depicts Thomas first becoming acquainted with an assortment of extraordinary foreign nationals who are possibly spies and then embracing rather than turning away from the new differences in his life.

The novel rapidly takes the form of a comic, or even spoof spy narrative, with Thomas being plunged into a world of sinister British agents, industrial espionage and dual identities. As is required in a story of this kind, he falls in love with a beautiful woman whose career may or may or not be espionage. As with many of Coe's novels, the narrative is driven by the main character being drawn into a gradually unfolding mystery: Thomas is urged to solve the riddle of how industrial secrets are mysteriously being passed out of the British pavilion.

Coe is writing within a rich tradition of English comic writing in which naive young Englishmen are placed in a foreign setting among a collection of larger-than-life characters who enact a comedy of bruising contrasts in national characteristics. One thinks of Anthony Powell's Venusberg, Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, and, with certain differences (notably in the figure of its main character), Kingsley Amis's One Fat Englishman. All of these novels come to us from a significantly long historical distance now, and what prompts the comparisons is partly the historical setting of Coe's novel with its well-studied, old-fashioned dialogue.

Here, two British secret service agents approach Thomas to assess his political sympathies and his suitability to be sent to an Expo where industrial espionage is likely to be conducted between the Cold War powers:

"What's your view, Foley?"

"My view?"

"On this Belgian shindig. Expo 58. Do you regard it as a historic opportunity for all the nations of the world to come together, for the first time since the War, in a spirit of peaceful cooperation?

"Or do you consider it little more than a sordid marketplace powered not by idealism at all, but by the forces of capitalism?"

There is a clever sense here of mid-century English comic dialogue mixed with a Pinter-esque dash of menace. The hyper-formality of the questioning conveys something of the clipped coldness of outdated English received pronunciation; but the datedness is imaginative and has a satirical edge. As with the television series Mad Men, old fashioned attitudes in this novel are the source of dark humour, as when a character remarks on his impression of the salutary qualities of smoking: "I always feel much healthier after a gasper or two."

It has been observed of Mad Men that this form of humour is in danger of provoking feelings of complacency and superiority in viewers, who are apt to think of themselves as so much more enlightened than the represented characters. While the humour in Expo 58 is too amiable to prompt that criticism, one might nevertheless find the satire without point. In a recent essay, Coe has drawn attention to political satire's inability to change the things towards which it directs its comic contempt. In his fiction, satire brings a quite different problem. Coe has been praised as a novelist who captures the spirit of the age of any period in recent British history that he takes for his subject. But his writing is really too primed for satire for that. The urge to satirise and to render things absurd takes precedence over accurate representations of periods in British life. And it also obstructs nuanced depictions of relationships and inner lives in Coe's work. Satire's very potency can be a hindrance as well as a gift.

Moreover, the historical setting, dialogue and characters in Expo 58 make the novel seem less a satire than a satire of a satire. Coe is playing with the conventions of the mid-century English comic novel in such a way as to promote formal interest over satirical power. It is earlier comic novels that are being worked upon and dissected rather than the depicted society. The loss of subtlety in the representation of relationships and individual human psychology that satire brings is not compensated for in this novel by any biting examination of society (which we do at least find in the modern setting of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim).

Towards the end of Expo 58, it is suggested that Thomas might be sent to Eastern Europe by the British secret service under the disguise of being a businessman to conduct some industrial espionage. The 1964 film Too Hot for June, in which a hapless Englishman played by Dirk Bogarde is used by the secret service in a similar way, is possibly being invoked here. The spirit of that film is felt throughout Expo 58, and Thomas's features are even likened to those of Bogarde at more than one point in the narrative. But it is difficult to know what the cross-genre similarities are adding to the novel.

These criticisms might seem ungrateful when made towards a novel that is so consistently funny, entertaining and clever. The narrative is superbly structured and its revelations are artfully disclosed. Moreover, towards the novel's conclusion, the interweaving of the events of Thomas's love interest with those of his family life and history gives rise to moments of real poignancy.

As always with Coe, there is a strong feeling for the uncanny force of emotional difficulties carried over from one generation to the next. It is disclosed that the elder members of Thomas's family moved to London from Belgium at the outbreak of the First World War, after their farm was burned and family members were killed by invading German soldiers. Thomas visits the location of the destroyed farm, where he finds nothing but an empty field. The sense of human transience is well caught by the parallel the reader draws (wisely unprompted by Coe) with the site of the Expo, which will soon be pulled down, its political intrigues moving elsewhere.

In spite of these achievements, the novel never captures the richness of historical representation that Coe, in a recent review, has found in a historical study of Britain in the late-1950s - David Kynaston's Modernity Britain. Of course, the comparison is unfair in one sense, as Coe's comic novel does not aim to provide us with the thorough detail that a social history can give us. But the contrast points to the weakness of Coe's project.

Where his previous novel was so powerful in showing us the dark and dismaying ironies involved in a society where the artificial and the actual are merging, Expo 58 is reassuringly unreal. It is a wonderful entertainment, and no one but Coe could have written it, but one hopes that it marks an interlude rather than point of departure in his work. There are more vital and urgent contemporary subjects for him to address in his future novels.

Matthew Peters is a freelance critic.