Tag Archives: postmodernism

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.

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Review: Q by Evan Mandery

Q by Evan ManderyIf you could go back in time, would you save yourself from the greatest heartbreak of your life? This is the question that Q asks, in a whimsically postmodern fashion that mostly (mostly) manages to avoid quite straying into Zooey Deschanel territory.

I know I'm setting the movement back, but BAAAAARF.

Now, the first thing to remember is not to panic at the initial premise. Our unnamed narrator is a struggling writer (slightly worried this is thinly veiled metatext) whose own postmodern offering, Time’s Broken Arrow (UH OH) is moderately successful, and who has met the love of his life, the she-doesn’t-know-how-beautiful-she-is (ALERT! ALERT!), quixotically named (OH NO) Q (THIS IS NEXT TO “Z FOR ZOOEY” IN THE ALPHABET OF KOOK). However, it is definitely worth bearing with the fact that on paper this is a Pynchon-romcom mashup (in fact, it is one of those, but I can’t imagine that shifting many copies on the 3 for 2 table). Q is an organic gardener committed to the single organic farm that lives, almost magically protected, in the very centre of New York City. She is beautiful, kind, loving and generous – we seriously stop barely short of butterflies landing on her fingertips and birds singing along with her.

But just before their wedding, our narrator is visited by his future self, and told that they will suffer a terrible tragedy if he continues to marry Q. He believes him. And he commits an act of unforgivable sabotage on the most important relationship in his life. But then, one after the other, more future selves continue to visit him – marry someone else, divorce her, become a lawyer, get a dead-end job, etc. It becomes impossible to see how this could ever end well, but of course, you know our narrator will eventually be able to travel back in time, so perhaps it will never end at all…

Mandery has fun with the time travel stuff, but he also makes fun of its unscientificness – as a future self tries to illustrate the concept on a tablecloth, the waiter complains not about the state of the tablecloth, but his terrible grasp of the sequential fallacy. Because it’s not really about the mechanics of time travel at all. It’s not really even about Q, whose perfection and unflappable faith in her ridiculous rich-property-developer father (if you smell a PLOT DEVICE, you’re not wrong) makes her rather unbelievable. It’s about how you learn to live with your regrets, and the value that lends your moments of happiness.

But perhaps whether you’ll enjoy it boils down to whether you can grit your teeth and bear the following:

…in that apartment, where Q and I shared peanut brittle while watching Casablanca, and completed the Sunday crossword puzzle with jam-covered toothpicks, and made snow angels in a pile of sugar on the hardwood floor, and first made love…

That is your litmus test, right there. If you can cope with our narrator’s middle-class Brooklynite love affair with himself in New York city, then you will find yourself strangely moved by the things that follow.

Rating:
In a tweet: The Time Traveller’s Wife instagrammed.