Friday, June 23, 2006

The Rotters' Club, Jonathan Coe

In the middle of my other reading, having just read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and Walter Benjamin, and now finishing up Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club is comparatively slight. In many ways, a standard "coming-of-age" story, it's nevertheless an entertaining novel and, as it happened, perfect for the beach, where I spent last weekend. I'm not going to write at length about it, but I will offer a brief response (I'm going to try some shorter posts--maybe that'll help me finish them in a more timely manner...).

As with What a Carve Up!, the only other novel of his I've read, Coe employs a variety of techniques to tell his story, including letters, articles in a school paper, "unpublished" stories, diary entries, as well as more or less straight narrative. Coe effectively conveys a sense of what England might have been like in the 1970s, with its pre-Thatcher political tensions, including unions battles and IRA bombings, as well as the culture and music of the time. The main character is Benjamin Trotter, who is a student, madly in love with Cicely, who he is afraid to talk to; he plans to be a writer or composer of some kind. Early in the novel, he is exposed to the music of Henry Cow by his sister's boyfriend Malcolm, and he is soon fascinated by the kind of prickly music they made and is inspired to write his own music. It was a pleasant surprise reading about Henry Cow in a novel, and the bits about music are mostly well done and often quite funny. Many of the adult characters in the book are affiliated with the local auto workers union in some capacity, and there is some good stuff here on the tensions between workers and union leaders on one side, and the managerial class on the other. It was interesting reading this book after having read both David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again earlier this year. Reynolds describes over and over again the economic malaise and everyday tedium that produced the various English musicians that got turned on by the promise of first punk and then its aftermath, whereas Harvey describes the economic conditions in more detail and how they led to the election of Thatcher and the neoliberal privatization program she pushed. Coe writes well about much of this, and his characters are, for the most part, believable (Benjamin's younger brother Paul, who actually reads Milton Friedman and is an early Thatcherite, is less well fleshed out and is thus a little harder to credit).

Coe does not tie everything up for the reader; much of the story is left unresolved, or the only account we have of an event is one character's subjective perspective. While there are some tedious passages (the 30+ page "sentence" that closes the main portion of the book, before we return to the present-day framing scene, is frankly a chore to read), The Rotters' Club is generally an enjoyable and often very funny novel. But it's not nearly as good as What a Carve Up! (published as The Winshaw Legacy in the US), which I wholeheartedly recommend (and which is an interesting recent example, I think, of excellent fiction with explicitly political content). (See The Complete Review's page on Coe, which includes links to their reviews of all of his books.)


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