Monthly Archives: September 2012

Mid-week Treat! Literary coffee mugs

So my flatmates have finally moved out after 2 years of happy cohabitation, taking apparently all their lovely crockery with them. Sad times! This seemed as good an excuse reason as any to invest in some new bits for the kitchen, and oh whoops what do you know I accidentally bought four of these:

Literary transport mugsI don’t know, I tend to roll my eyes at some of the Penguin cover merchandise you can get these days, and the temptation to emblazon yourself with hints at how intellectual and literary you are, but at the same time, I think I am going to love these a lot…Plus they have the ‘points of interest’ making it nominally more educational? Maybe?

I bought Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockinbird, Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. So pretty much an A-level reading list. Which ones would you pick?

Review: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell SimMaxwell Sim is a man struggling. He’s the wrong side of 40, his wife has left him, he doesn’t understand his daughter, he’s estranged from his father, and he’s suffering from clinical depression that he tries desperately, but unsuccessfully to hide. In an effort to reconnect with the world, Maxwell takes up a job on a PR stunt, travelling across the country to promote ec0-friendly toothbrushes. Primed with his Prius and his strangely seductive SatNav, Emma, he embarks on his journey to Scotland. On the way, he tries to reconnect with various people from his past, only to find that things don’t go as he had planned.

As in most of Coe’s novels, Maxwell’s journey is interspersed with various other conveniently-appearing texts that cast the important events of his life in a new light. A personal essay by a holiday-romance-that-never-was, his father’s memoires, his ex-wife’s short stories, and, most disconcertingly, a documentary about the real-life Donald Crowhurst, all make him question the foundations of the life he has built for himself.

In What a Carve Up!, probably his most famous and definitely his greatest novel, Coe uses almost exactly the same techniques (an insanely lonely protagonist, an apparently insignificant moment in his past which radically alters the path of his life, a remote real-life figure – in this case Yuri Gagarin – and patterns of bizarre and sometimes upsetting connectivity) to make a scathing satire on Thatcher’s government, and the way that distant figures in government have indelible, tragic results on others’ lives. Here, Coe’s satire is directed at the banking culture – Maxwell’s father has a strange, intense infatuation with a trader in the 70s that ends with his father memorably accusing him of thinking himself ‘A cross between Leavis, Midas and Gandalf’ (haha) – but the satire falls a little short. Although the rickety nature of bad trades is cleverly illustrated with a complex, ultimately disastrous spread bet that Maxwell’s father is embroiled in, Coe doesn’t seem to have the same targeted, frustrated fury that makes What a Carve Up! so phenomenal. Instead, that becomes part of a wider circling around ideas about connection and isolation in the modern world, and also our ideas about what our lives should be – Maxwell’s narration takes us down plenty of dead ends  that trip up our own expectations that lives should be lived with the structure of a novel. It’s perhaps not as successful as What a Carve Up!, with meandering themes that are a nod to The Dwarves of Death (which I was much less enamoured with), but I don’t think these dead ends are to blame.

I’m always a bit suspicious of reviews that start by talking about other reviews, but I was amazed by how infurated this book made people. Reviewers have pointed to the slightly baffled commentary on modern technology – Maxwell’s unfamiliarity with text messaging etiquette, Facebook friends and mumsnet – but I think that’s a fairly convincing bafflement for a man in his 40s trying to grapple with the new technology, as are the slightly slower passages of Prius manuals and SatNav programming. One memorable review berated it for not being entertaining enough, but can you really spend 300 pages with a middle-aged man in the depths of desperate loneliness and have it convincingly be an action-packed laugh a minute? No. Don’t be an idiot.

Also, the ending has outraged so many people! ‘It’s too META’, they cry! ‘You aren’t the first person to invent postmodernism, Jonathan Coe!’ Since when did you have to be the first person to do something for it to be interesting? Without giving the game away, I thought it was a brilliant spanner in the works – I would challenge anybody who suggests it’s any less valid an ending than the one you were probably expecting, which while more familiar, are just as artificial. I was heartbroken – and in that reaction, you as a reader become the kind of connection with Maxwell that he’s been searching for.

Rating: 
First line: When I saw the Chinese woman and her daughter playing cards together at their restaurant table, the water and the lights of Sydney harbour shimmering behind them, it set me thinking about Stuart, and the reason he had to give up driving his car.
In a tweet: The terrible book reviewers of Maxwell Sim.

Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Didn't spot the bridge until the end of the book!NW takes a cross-section of a community in Willesden, North London, following the lives of four characters who grew up in the same run-down Caldwell estate. Leah and Natalie, childhood friends, have found their friendship strained by the different directions their lives have taken. Leah is content in her job and content in her marriage, except she secretly takes the pill to avoid the baby they both claim to want. Her narration is the most fractured and meandering, merging description and memory, thoughts and senses. In contrast, Natalie (originally Keisha) has thrown off her council-estate roots completely and reinvented herself as a lawyer living on the well-heeled outskirts of their community. But her transformation has left her with an identity crisis, as filling in her various roles as wife, mother and lawyer give her no clue to who Natalie (or Keisha) is. Felix is a young man with a new girlfriend, a pocketful of cash and the world at his feet. It’s the most inspiring and upbeat part of the novel (except we know that it’s not). And Nathan is, for most of them, the spectre of Caldwell – scarred, poverty stricken, and angry.

The narration reflects the consciousness of the characters themselves. It’s the free indirect speech of your A-levels, and then some (Mrs Dalloway is an obvious, and probably conscious, point of comparison). Chapter 37 recurs, out of order, because of its special significance for Leah. Natalie’s life is broken into 185 numbered segments that maybe smack a little of the creative writing class, but which I thought worked rather well. Smith’s writing is meant to evoke the bustle and jostle of London, and it is as dense, as crowded and sometimes as antagonising as London can be.

In fact, reading the novel I ended up with a Leah/Natalie split of my own. One side of me enjoyed the undoubtedly good and sometimes brilliant writing, the sheer joy of a novel that meanders rather than drives, sprawls rather than directs, and the pithy literary asides (‘People were not people but merely an effect of language. You could conjure them up and kill them in a sentence.’)

But the other side wondered whether there isn’t something missing. I’m not saying I wanted a moral of the story, but I did feel like it was a novel supposedly about class that wasn’t actually saying very much. For example, it wants to hate and satirize the middle classes, but while it manages a certain amount of self-aware eye-rolling, you don’t get the sense she really means it. Leah and her husband scoff at Natalie’s success, but they also crave it, and Natalie herself rolls her eyes at herself during one (stereo)typical brunch.

But the Thing that happens that knits the four characters together? That, that is reaffirming a whole load of stereotypes – those who seem to be scammers are, the scarred junkie commits the crime, a phone call to the police will sort it all out, the only victim of gang crime worth mourning is one whose making something of himself. Her Nathan section is the shortest and the one where the character is kept at the furthest remove, as though Smith herself has fallen victim to her middle class squeamishness and couldn’t quite bear the thought of spending too much time with him. But another part of me wonders whether she’s challenging us to look at how our prejudices work? We want to read books about working-class girl done good because it makes us feel more comfortable, as though we don’t hold the prejudices about the Nathans and the Shars that we undoubtedly do.

I don’t know. These aren’t demands that I would make of just any author, or most books. But they are ones that this book made me make! Like Zadie Smith, I had trouble wrapping this book up in a neat little parcel too. There are parts of exquisite craftsmanship next to some rather more difficult aspects (and a few editorial booboos – who carries around a bus ticket in London?). The infrastructure isn’t without its faults, but you can still have a great time. A bit like London…*

Other London-based metaphors for NW are gratefully received, nay, ENCOURAGED.

Rating: 
First line: The fat sun stalls by the phone masts.
In a tweet: A big job for a big city.