A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Anyone who has read Jonathan Coe knows that he has a knack for exposing the particular absurdity of a certain type of Brit, because we in the UK have all met someone like the people Coe populates his books with: the cold eyed types who think that Katie Hopkins is only telling it like it is and that all the jobless need to help them find work is a bit of a kick up the bum. The kind who like to point out that they’ve worked hard for what they have and pontificate about how teenage mothers only have babies so they can jump the housing queue.
Coe is a genius at putting people like that on the page and letting them run loose, a bit in the way Tom Sharpe did, but in a more erudite and leisurely way, creating situations which expose their failings and gradually urge them into revealing their utter lack of personal qualities. There’s a kind of restrained glee in his persecution of these proto-Tebbits which is invariably very funny. Take Dr Dudden from The House of Sleep, whose attempts to prove that sleep is a wasteful luxury ends up with him wearing a hat and thinking he’s a pirate, or the Winshaw clan in What a Carve Up, whose obsession with wealth lures them into a scenario involving dark castles, stormy nights and escaped knife-wielding lunatics, a situation which ends well for absolutely no one but the knife.
Coe at his best works like an Ealing comedy on steroids – a sublime mixture of pratfalls and biting social commentary – and Number 11 is Coe at his best. Vintage Coe in fact. The kind of Coe you’d find in a book by Coe, referred to as the mythical lost work of the satirical writer Coe, because apart from mocking those who believe Margaret Thatcher was the best thing to happen to the coal mining industry, there’s nothing Coe likes better than the occasional nod and a wink to the reader in the form of an inside joke.
In Number 11 the Winshaw family from What a Carve Up is back, though this time sharing the stage with an extended cast. Central to the drama are Rachel and Alison, childhood friends who become estranged over a Snapchat gone wrong. Their story soon becomes overtaken by a series of overlapping plotlines too numerous to list here but of which my favourites are the hapless Z-list slebs trapped in a ratings engineered reality TV show and a copper whose psychogeographical approach to policing and interest in social issues has earned him the nickname Nate of the Station. These rapid shifts from one plot strand to another could be disconcerting in less experienced hands, but Coe knows exactly how far he can stretch the reader’s patience before revealing how one set of characters relates to another. He also knows who deserves to get their comeuppance, and it isn’t too much of a spoiler to reveal that he ties up the narrative in a way that’s simultaneously hilarious, disturbing and surprising.
Coe weaves a complex web in Number 11, but in the end the righteous prosper and the unrighteous end up as the main course. And there can’t be too much wrong with that.