The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim
Jonathan Coe's latest novel is like a pair of conjoined twins, grown from the same seed, sharing organs, inseparable without killing one of them. It's clear by now which of the two its critics would like to preserve. Early reviews have been unanimous in their praise for the story of a suburbanite's breakdown that the book seemingly announces itself to be. Its vision of Facebook and satnav-exacerbated solitude presents "a sharp picture of the emptiness of modern life" as Jeremy Paxman wrote in The Observer, congratulating the author on his return to topical satire.
Equally consistent has been the disdain for the heavily plotted family revelations and rather passé metafictional contortions with which the novel concludes. These, by consensus, spoil an otherwise well-aimed takedown of the illusions of social media, fatally diminishing what might have been a portrait of an era fit to stand beside the ideological 1970s of The Rotters' Club and the rapacious 1980s of What A Carve Up! And perhaps they do. Yet, on reflection, it isn't so obvious which of these tangled creatures - the state-of-the-nation novel and the slippery, idiosyncratic thing it grows into - has the stronger will to exist.
Maxwell Sim, the novel's hero and narrator, is a 48-year-old divorcé who lives in Watford and works, when not incapacitated by depression, as an "after-sales customer liaison officer" (that is, in the complaints department) at an Ealing department store. He's the kind of mustn't-grumble grumbler who keeps his sadness tamped down with burgherish clichés. "Friday began on a note of high spirits and rare optimism," he announces. "It ended in bitter disappointment." In short, he's an avatar of ordinariness, one of the multitude to populate British fiction (and epigraphs from Alasdair Gray's 1982 novel Janine and David Nobbs' The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin place him squarely in this lineage of quiet crack-ups). However, to be ordinary in 21st-century England is to be under constant surveillance. "Nowadays," Maxwell reflects, "any number of orbiting satellites were trained on us every minute of the day, pinpointing our locations with unimaginable speed and accuracy. There was no such thing as privacy any more. We were never really alone."
Maxwell is alone, though. He has 74 friends on Facebook and no one with whom to discuss his divorce. He returns home after a failed attempt to "reconnect" with his father in Australia, literally boring a fellow passenger to death en route, and the only thing waiting for him is an e-mail inbox full of obscene spam. Even when the internet does succeed in bringing him closer to his estranged family, it does so at the cost of his self-respect. His former wife, an aspiring writer, uses an online forum called Mumsnet. Maxwell invents a female persona named Liz and cultivates a queasy intimacy, one in which she gratefully unburdens herself of the disappointments of her marriage and shares the humiliating short stories which she has been writing about him. "It intrigued me," Maxwell says with strangulated dignity, "that she could feel so much for an imaginary person (Liz) and so little for a real one (me)."
Via a sequence of winking authorial contrivances in a vaguely Nobbsean mode, Maxwell gets enlisted by an old friend to deliver a consignment of toothbrushes to the most northerly point in Britain. Along the way, he checks in with old relatives and neighbours and receives documents containing momentous secrets about his past. His shortcomings as a husband and father, and his miseries as a son, rise up before him. As he drives on, his mind comes unmoored. He falls in love with the voice of his satnav. He starts identifying with Donald Crowhurst, a yachtsman who in 1968 tried and failed to sail solo around the world, lying about his defeat before vanishing at sea and leaving a logbook filled with insane confessions. Then Coe tweaks a dial, the plot's mechanism engages and Maxwell is slotted into a happy ending in a world that isn't quite our world, a reality that is no longer realist. What a swizz, you might think.
There's something to be said for that view (and Maxwell shares it), yet it ignores the most remarkable and, so far as I have seen, unremarked fact about the novel. That is its debt to Like a Fiery Elephant, Coe's 2004 biography of the 1960s experimental novelist BS Johnson. By debt, I mean to say that the "bad" back half of the new book - with its "pat, outrageously confected plotting and silly games" in the words of Neel Mukherjee - is an overt reworking of the material that Coe covered in the biography. Inasmuch as that was Coe's most interesting project, it isn't altogether to be regretted that its spirit and subject should haunt the present work.
Johnson was a cult figure when Coe agreed to write his life and he remains a cult figure now. This is partly because his imaginative world of Hammersmith factories, Midlands football grounds, cancer, senility and heartbreak is not an especially inviting one - worse, even, than Maxwell Sim's grey reality - and partly because the novels that made Johnson's reputation are difficult to keep in print. He was behind the infamous "book in a box", The Unfortunates, which was a package of pamphlets designed to be read in random order. He cut holes in two of the pages of Albert Angelo to let the reader to skip forward in the text, a type of foreshadowing available only to the most extreme literary Brutalists. Presented with Coe's misshapen new novel, Johnson no doubt could have suggested a similarly drastic surgical procedure but in 1973, at the age of 40, he made his most radical edit, slitting his wrists.
Why he should have killed himself remains as obscure as the motive behind any suicide. However, we know that he suffered for his stubbornness over the commercial logic of the publishing industry and that the point of his greatest inflexibility was his refusal, apparently more moral than aesthetic, to make things up ("Telling stories is telling lies," he liked to say). He was an obsessively autobiographical writer whose works nonetheless confessed to their lingering traces of artifice. "I choose to write truth in the form of a novel," he told his publisher, promising "a brilliant bunch of lies" if his works along these lines didn't sell. The promise was the lie. Johnson stuck to his principles, cursing the philistine public all the way to his elective grave.
That all seems clear enough, but Coe was able to propose another, murkier factor which may also have led to Johnson's suicide. He discovered evidence that his subject was already, per the melodramatic cliché, living a lie. Johnson, it appears, suppressed aspects of his sexual identity and then constructed an intricate system of occult beliefs around it, as if to further torment himself. In particular, he was convinced that he had been singled out by Robert Graves's White Goddess for a poet's destiny. He believed that he was cursed, that he was mystically prohibited from finding love, that he would die at 29. The first draft of his autobiographical novel Albert Angelo (the one with the gaping holes in its pages) starts with a long section detailing the relationship between his own stand-in and an easily-identified other. They shared, he writes, "an electric unspeakable inexplicable knowing… like the blood-bond of Siamese twins."
Johnson dropped the section. Then he cut the other character entirely, got married to someone else and tried to move on with his life. And though the real-life counterpart to this "twin" was also the source for his magical delusions, the person he tried to visit at his times of greatest crisis, the "most important relationship in his life" in Coe's opinion, Johnson never technically lied. It should be plain, though, that his urge to tell only the truth concealed something sadder and more complicated - something, to use his own word, unspeakable.
Coe spent eight years with the Johnson archive. "Sometimes I think that no one could understand BS Johnson as thoroughly as I do now, having had the privilege of seeing him from so many different angles," he wrote. "Then again, I've never met the man, let alone lived with him, or had him for a father." He ended the book declaring that "those are the last words I intend to write about BS Johnson". Apparently he was unwilling to stop thinking about the implications of that strange and unhappy life, that terrible privacy. All the biographical details that I have rehearsed here find their way into Maxwell Sim's story, incongruous as they seem in context. Maxwell does in fact seem to have Johnson, or a version of him, for a father. Perhaps Maxwell himself is another version. Everything - the suicidal trajectory, the Gravesean poetic occultism, the bad faith, the truth that outs - is reused.
Thus Coe, to the dismay of his reviewers, ends his latest novel by showing up in person and calling an end to fictional pretences. It's a Johnsonian gesture, and it would seem glib were it not for the seriousness with which Johnson invested similar manoeuvres and the corresponding seriousness with which Coe has attended to them. It can also be read as a riposte to the earlier author, comically inflected, tragically interrupted: "[Y]ou're absolutely correct that the kind of thing I write, from a literal point of view, is not objectively 'true'. But what I like to think is that there's another kind of truth - more universal… Erm - excuse me, where do you think you're going?"
Where indeed? The form seems most frivolous when it is most grave, the fiction most artificial when it comes closest to fact. In his isolation, Maxwell Sim represents an attempt to understand another real person, to reach across time and mortality and confusions that were never corrected. He's an artefact of Coe's relationship with Johnson. That's a consoling thought, one that speaks to the possibilities of the novel rather than the limitations of Facebook. And perhaps the resulting work is, in the end, disfigured by an unsightly growth. I still say it would be a pity to cut it off.
Ed Lake is The National's art critic.