Jonathan Coe, Number 11 – TLS
After a recent reading by shortlisted writers for the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize – a prize given for innovation in fiction – the first questioner from the audience asked the panel to comment on the relationship between formal experiment and subversive politics. Tom McCarthy shot back that one necessarily entails the other. Representations of the autonomous bourgeois self, claims of authenticity and originality – these are signs of realism’s bad faith. The innovative novel (sometimes referred to as experimental, postmodern or self-reflexive), by contrast, assumes that we are radically inauthentic: even the most private areas of our lives are commodified, and we speak or write under the influence of others, in an echo chamber of language. Such ideas, of course, have been around for a good while, but in the face of realism’s persistence, their expression in fiction still seems worthy of a gong. Perhaps if the Goldsmiths Prize had been established a few years earlier it would have featured in Number 11, Jonathan Coe’s sequel-of-sorts to his satire on Thatcherism, What A Carve Up! (1994). The function of prizes in capitalist culture is the subject of just one of many mini-essays and set pieces in Number 11, a dazzling tour de force with as much to say about Britain under austerity as the state of the contemporary novel.
In its conjectures, self-doubt and formal game-playing Number 11 is avowedly postmodern, yet it clings to realist ideas about common ground and the virtue of the ordinary. Similarly, it is nostalgic for the past while critical of our failure to move beyond it. To reflect this, the story begins in pastiche of the gothic (a genre concerned with the overhang of history), its gullible heroine, Rachel, trapped in a tower and terrorized by her brother’s joke. Rachel becomes connected to the Winshaws, the exemplary Thatcherite family from What A Carve Up!, and the novel goes on to examine how, in the aftermath of Blair and Cameron, the family’s belief in money has come to supersede all other values.
As the earlier novel reached its climax when Britain launched weapons against Saddam Hussein, so, here, the death of David Kelly haunts people like Rachel’s grandparents, making them mistrustful of government claims about the need for austerity. In this climate, and despite a massacre at the end of What A Carve Up!, killing many of the Winshaw family, those still standing remain insanely competitive. A memorial prize in their name turns, predictably, into an über-contest, pitting prize against prize in Britain and then – following the Man Booker – in America, ultimately consuming global awards such as the Nobel Prize. Giles Trending, a PR man, boasts that the prize’s “fundamental meaninglessness” is its “whole point”.
The destruction of meaning is just one of Coe’s charges against the Winshaw’s rampant and indiscriminate money-making (across generations they move from selling arms to defusing landmines, both equally profitable), and there is concern throughout Number 11 about the impact of a financially obsessed culture on access to knowledge; on the credulity of those who do not read. So, for example, the Winshaw Prize is launched at the £187-million Library of Birmingham, funded by a council who soon cut its opening hours and close down “less prestigious” local branches.
Underscoring the prize’s ideology, Trending declares that it is intended as a “poke in the eye to all those sentimentalists who still believe that artistic creation is [a] haven from competition… some sort of socialist utopia in which different creative spirits work…in parallel and in sympathy.” To judge whether this is satirical exaggeration, dilated merely for comic effect, it’s worth considering how many in the literary world are currently talking about the market’s capture of the arts and its impact on the imagination. At the Goldsmiths Prize, for instance, another contestant, Max Porter, an editor at Granta Books, lamented that his first novel would be the last he ever wrote in that haven “outside the market”, free from contracts, sales or prizes.
In Number 11, this question of comedy’s effect exercises PC Pilbeam, a detective seated at table number eleven during the launch of the Winshaw Prize. He is known to his colleagues as Nate of the Station because of his belief that to solve crime, a policeman needs to understand contemporary ideas about the state of the nation. Faced with the murder of two comics his automatic thought is, “It was time to do some reading”. With bookcases filled with “history, politics, sociology, cultural theory, media studies, Marxist philosophy, semiotics and queer studies”, he undertakes research on comedy, noting Descartes’s argument that humour expresses superiority; Freud’s belief that jokes are shortcuts, their punchlines bringing together disparate material; Kundera’s feeling that satire is the lowest form of comedy, because it has a point; as well as the theories of the potential murderer who writes in a “particularly well-argued and particularly unhinged” blog that comedy is quietist, defusing political anger. In the echo chamber of Coe’s novel, all of these come back to haunt the reader.
Where What a Carve Up! traced lines of familial descent, the narrative in Number 11 – studded with references to social media and the web – spins out across Rachel’s network of family, friends and acquaintances. Her best friend’s mother, Val, a one-hit-wonder of the pop world who dreams of making a comeback, is lured onto a TV competition where celebrities are humiliated for the public to laugh at. Despite suffering from arachnophobia, she agrees to be trapped in a jungle full of insects, but her willingness to collude with the programme-makers counts for nothing: she has not understood that she is the fall guy. Vicious outpourings on Twitter turn Val into a pariah, and she falls into debt. Soon, too poor to heat her home, she is reduced to circling on Birmingham’s number 11 bus. As she consoles herself with the thought that her fellow passengers are “Ordinary people. Decent people”, she is confronted with an old woman hissing, “Why don’t you piss off back to the jungle where you belong?” – a line all the more disturbing for its possible racist double meaning.
Another more seductive dream, but one that also turns into a nightmare, is told to Rachel by her Oxford tutor, Laura. In a novel comprising many tales of the irrational, full of phobias, phantoms and manias, this one exerts a particular fascination. Its power derives in part from the jewel-like image of a winter garden under ice. But it also comes from Coe’s understanding of how the elusiveness of the past, and of stories (aporia), can lure readers to a never-ending quest for meaning until they “cross the border” into fixation. This one, about Laura’s husband, an expert in “paranoid fiction” who becomes obsessed with finding an obscure film glimpsed in childhood, seems to have originated in the pages of Coe’s 9th and 13th (2005), which relates his own passionate search for a lost piece of cinema. But the pull of aesthetics and memory is not the whole story here, there is also political critique. Angered by her husband’s retreat into the “blanketing safety” of a past he felt kinder, more paternalistic and less blighted by “choice”, Laura takes revenge by adapting his cultural ideas for the benefit of a think tank measuring “everything in monetary terms”. And she treats her son with a frostiness designed to stop him from ever romanticizing his childhood.
There are ways in which Coe’s novel resembles Kundera’s essayistic fiction, sharing an understanding of the novel tradition as one of rationalism springing from sceptical laughter. As a writer of the Left, Coe also harbours some of the same anxiety about stories put in service (a reaction to Stalinist thinking on art), rather than ones that multiply meaning. So he includes Kundera’s argument as one among many possible choices for the reader to consider – a measure to outflank and outwit the Czech writer. Similarly, while open enough to number Marx, Gramsci and Lukács in Pilbeam’s lexicon of necessary thinkers, Number 11 employs a very British vernacular, its anti-elitist intelligence forged by the lessons of those, like the detective, “set apart” in lifeless suburbs, or rotting in decimated places such as the ones on Birmingham’s ringroad, whose names toll out, “Perry Barr – Handsworth – Winson Green”, as Val trundles through them on the number 11 bus.
This belief in the ordinary (despite veins of bigotry and nastiness), and the messages of popular culture intelligently read, mean that when Coe shifts genre once again and the money-monsters finally crawl out from their lair, imperiling our heroine’s sanity, Rachel is able to recognize the plot others remain blind to and fight her way out of it. No longer the unsuspecting girl of an old-fashioned gothic novel, she is now the paranoid star of her own slasher movie. But for all Coe’s experiment, he retains some of that Lukácsian doubt about the free-play of the imagination. So while he dissolves the solidity of realism, breaking the borders of genre, he also tells us that off the page transcendence is not possible. In this world, “phantoms” are unseen migrants, Dracula’s descendants are financiers “draining the life” out of our cities, and breaking borders means madness – a sign that our obsession with money is making people lose their minds. Finally, Number 11, risking nostalgia, returns to Rachel’s grandparents, to their modest life now broken by austerity’s mean resources. And yet in their summer garden there is a tree where Rachel sits biting into its powdery, juicy plums – an image of bounty to share which refutes the Winshaw mantra of scarcity and competition. A last joke, collapsing disparate worlds and ambiguous enough to satisfy even Kundera, suggests that if the economic argument seems lost, our progress in social relations may yet have a bearing on the doctrine of money. When her gay best friend proposes they become a couple, Rachel quips back: “Dream on…this lady’s not for turning”.
This review appeared in the TLS on 27.11.2015 with the title, ‘A poke in the eye’.