Coe, The Closed Circle

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Steven Poole
The Guardian, Sat 4 Sep 2004 01.19 BST
The Closed Circle
by Jonathan Coe
433pp, Viking, £17.99
How do you incorporate contemporary events and culture into fiction? It is a question that much exercises one of Jonathan Coe’s characters in The Closed Circle. Benjamin Trotter, last seen as a schoolboy in The Rotters’ Club, is now in his mid-40s; he works as an accountant and has for decades been working on a novel that runs to thousands of pages and is to be accompanied by his own musical compositions. But he is haunted by self-doubt: “Am I not just raking over the embers of my little life and trying to blow it up into something significant by sticking a whole lot of politics in there as well? And what about September the eleventh? How do I find room for that kind of stuff in there?”
Well, quite. For Coe, whose narrative runs from Millennium Eve to early 2004 and beyond into a (politically undescribed) future, there is a lot of that kind of stuff to cram in. Demonstrations against the threatened closure of the Birmingham Rover factory, a smashed-up McDonald’s in the City of London, the resurgence of far-right politics in Britain, September 11 itself, war in Afghanistan, debates about war in Iraq and the war’s prosecution, and so on. Such events are cunningly blaring from televisions or newspaper headlines while Coe’s middle-aged, comfortably-off glum people wander around being glum or talking glumly to one another.
Further to convince us that we are reliving British life over the past four years, there are constant references to TV programmes – which, however, are never named, but described in maddeningly arch terms. Here is (we infer) Nigella performing fellatio on kitchen utensils, there is Have I Got News For You?, whose place in the culture is explained in this remarkably clumsy sentence: “It was considered a great coup for an MP to be invited on to this programme, even though he (it was rarely she) would often find himself subjected to a barrage of mockery from the other guests, and could sometimes scarcely be expected to leave with his reputation intact.” Sometimes scarcely, eh? The way such programmes are explained as though to a Martian must be some attempt at a sort of Augustan literary coyness, but it’s just annoying.
While we’re at it, we should also have our characters commentate on the absurdities of modern life as though they were tired feature columnists: people driving sports-utility vehicles to supermarkets (“a vehicle more suited to transporting essential food parcels along the treacherous supply roads between Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul”, ho ho), or mobile-phone users wearing earpieces (“you really do think they must be care-in-the-community cases”). All this feels dutiful rather than necessary.
The story is certainly well populated, and one thing just keeps happening after another. Benjamin, whose marriage is failing, meets a young woman, Malvina, in a bookshop and falls in love with her. She, unfortunately, falls in love with Benjamin’s brother, Paul, the Labour MP, whose own marriage is thereby threatened. Benjamin mooches off to a monastery to find himself. Meanwhile Claire, freelance translator and lover of Italy, is trying to find out what happened to her sister Miriam, who disappeared in The Rotters’ Club. And political columnist Doug is given a new job by his editor, for which, mystifyingly, he doesn’t feel much gratitude: “LITERARY – FUCKING – EDITOR… The cunts. The fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking CUNTS !”
Among a large cast of supporting characters are Rolf, a German BMW executive who flies in via helicopter to deliver a homily on how free-market fundamentalism is not always good for ordinary people, a child amusingly named Coriander, and Sir Arthur Pusey-Hamilton, the fictional alter-ego of another character who makes a welcome reappearance in a superbly funny castle guestbook entry.
It is all extremely readable and often entertaining. There is a consistent level of narrative facility and prose comfort that keeps the pages turning. But the major problem is that the novel feels rushed. Coe, it seems, is in a hurry to tell us directly what his characters are thinking and feeling, rather than letting them behave and speak in more subtle, complicated ways. Too much of The Closed Circle reads as though it were one of those epilogues where the rest of the lives of a novel’s characters are summed up in a few paragraphs.
The entire novel, really, is but epilogue to The Rotters’ Club, paying off that novel’s promise of a sequel. But it has none of the great comic set-pieces for which Coe was justly celebrated in its predecessor or in what is still his best novel, What a Carve Up!; nor are its political themes as well integrated. Instead, it relies on heavy portentousness, exemplified by the way characters and the narrator keep banging on about circles being closed. Eventually one is driven by this repetitive GCSE symbolism to suggest that maybe, without being closed, a circle is not a circle at all.
In the end, this is more glum than Coe’s other work, without succeeding in being what it apparently wants to be: more serious. It is to be hoped that now he has “closed” this circle, Coe’s next novel will live up once again to his considerable talent.

*********
The dread hand of Thatcher over us all

BY RICHARD MASON SUNDAY 05 SEPTEMBER 2004

In The Rotters’ Club, Jonathan Coe’s novel of adolescent angst, middle-aged infidelity, IRA terrorism and trade union activism in 1970s Birmingham ended with two predictions by the notoriously inaccurate soothsayer, Sam Chase. One was that Benjamin Trotter, the quiet one with artistic ambitions, would enjoy lifelong felicity with Cicely, his stunning (and unwitting) muse. The other was that Margaret Thatcher would never be Prime Minister.

When the characters are rediscovered in The Closed Circle, 25 years on, Thatcher’s premiership has been and gone and Cicely, of course, has disappeared from Benjamin’s life if not from his head. The editorial team of the King William’s School magazine are now in their forties: Emily, the fervent Christian, is married to Benjamin; Claire is recovering from a traumatic relationship with a married Italian; Doug’s youthful forays into journalism have landed him a top job on a major broadsheet; and the annoying youngest Trotter, Paul, is a New Labour MP.

Benjamin’s youthful promise has yet to bear fruit. He’s an accountant by profession; the book he has spent 20 years working on remains a tattered collection of type-written sheets. He worries that his “aura of failure, of disappointment” will scare off the lovely young woman who introduces herself to him in a Birmingham café one afternoon – with far-reaching consequences.

It was Coe’s close attention to detail – the politics, the bands, the lashings of Blue Nun – that brought the 1970s so engagingly to life in The Rotters’ Club, and he’s no less alert in describing the dawn of the new millennium. Paul appears on a comedy news quiz opposite “the smart-arsed editor of a satirical magazine”, and we know he’s being ridiculed by Ian Hislop on Have I got News for You? The Millennium bug, middle lane motorway drivers and reality TV celebrities all make an appearance.

The book has an up-to-the-minute topicality that most writers shy away from, but it allows Coe to hone in savagely on his bêtes noires. The workers’ struggles of The Rotters’ Club are over, and a scarily Thatcherite Prime Minister in thrall to a neoconservative US President leads the country and the Labour Party. Coe’s characters’ grown-up selves inhabit a world of private finance initiatives that “would have been unthinkable … under the Conservative government”; they have affairs with fat-cat executives who are lavishly rewarded for their business failures. The Iraq war is “ill-advised and dangerous”, and although Paul Trotter knows this he still votes for it. It’s his sister who seems to speak for the writer – and many of his readers – when she worries that: “It’s only a matter of time before something worse happens. Something huge…”

In a novel this richly drawn, it’s easy to forgive the odd instance of automatic phrasing (the inevitably “crepuscular gloom”) and the occasional clunky piece of character development. (See if you’re convinced that one character’s ruthless lampooning of the Pusey-Hamiltons in The Rotters’ Club was really a subtle panegyric.)

It’s easy, because Coe has succeeded in accomplishing that rare feat: a pair of novels that combine the addictive quality of the best soap operas with a basic cultural integrity. The “closed circle” of the title is not only the name of a think-tank-within-a-think-tank, set up by Paul and named after an elite club at school. It’s also a fitting description of a tangled narrative that begins and ends with a discussion between two adolescents in a revolving restaurant.

Don’t read The Closed Circle until you’ve read The Rotters’ Club, but make sure you have both by your bed the next time you take a sickie or a holiday.

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