The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

06/06/10, Mail Today

The eponymous narrator of Jonathan Coe’s new novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, muses, ‘Nowadays, any number of orbiting satellites were trained on us every minute of the day, pinpointing our locations with unimaginable speed and accuracy. There was no such thing as privacy any more. We were never really alone.’ The novel anatomises the defining paradox of our times: despite the communication revolution – e-mail, cellphone, mushrooming social networking sites, wireless – the individual is lonelier than any period in human history. A whole generation of people are now isolated in their privacy, on antidepressants, unable to forge real and meaningful human connections, have hundreds of virtual friends on Facebook but not a single real person to talk to when their marriage unravels. Such a lost soul is Maxwell Sim, who, at 48, is on the sharp, bewildered end of the society that has often been called ‘broken Britain’. His wife, Caroline, has walked out on him, taking with her their daughter, Lucy. The attendant depression has caused him to go on sick leave from his job – he’s the ‘After Sales Customer Liaison Officer’ for a central London department store – for six months. A recent visit to his father in Australia has only emphasised the barrenness of the father-son non-relationship.

So, when an offer arrives, of driving to the northernmost inhabited point in Britain, in the Shetland Isles, to sell eco-friendly toothbrushes (wooden handle, boar’s hair bristles) to the residents there, Sim jumps at the opportunity in the hope that some salvation might lie in this attempt to reconnect with the wider peopled world outside. Not the least part of the attraction is to visit, en route, Caroline and Lucy in Kendal. There is an errand, too, to be run: retrieving a file from his father’s flat, uninhabited for decades, in Lichfield. It is one of the hoariest tropes in the arts that a road trip is also a trip down memory lane and Coe obliges but a lot less straightforwardly than one would fear. As the man in the car becomes emblematic of the isolated, enisled modern man, and Sim’s past begins to get filled out for the reader (and, indeed, crucially to Sim himself), the main narrative is intercalated with four paratexts: a letter to Poppy, Sim’s fellow-passenger on a long-haul flight, written by her uncle; a short story written by Caroline; an essay written by Alison, one of Sim’s childhood friends, as part of her degree in psychology; and, finally, a piece by Sim’s father. These four pieces, while adding mosaic brilliance or the cleverness of a jigsaw puzzle (take your pick) to the story, remain ultimately too contrived to convince. Yes, they give information in oblique and surprising ways to the reader (and to Sim himself; he’s nothing if not a reincarnation of Ishiguro’s baffled, ignorant, wilfully unseeing central characters) but they are also, obtrusively and irritatingly, tricksy devices.

An early sounding of the Donald Crowhurst story – a Walter Mitty-type figure who fooled the world temporarily into thinking that he had circumnavigated the globe in a single-handed yacht in 1969 – acquires heavy strings and brass as the novel progresses and connections between Sim’s own journey and Crowhurst’s, both underpinned by existential crises, come thick and fast. In a novel that often feels overcontrived and overplotted, this business of Sim turning into a modern-day Crowhurst is one of the most laboured and incredible. By the time the pieces about Sim’s past fall into place, including a key revelation about his father and an identical one about his own self, showing that alienated father and son are far closer than one could have ever imagined, the clockwork-like artifice of the plotting has robbed it of any credibility or emotional impact. The final chapter, a postmodern sleight of hand, is fatally irritating.

And yet Coe manages to sound some plangently truthful chords in exploring Sim’s loneliness. The desolation at the heart of the book (and the nation) is sometimes played as comedy – and some of it spot-on too – but more often as anguish. Sim frequently works as an effective and moving barometer of a fractured, empty, miserable society, high on its plethora of consumer choices, low on the ‘Only connect’ principle, while at other times the impulse to comedy detracts from the emotional impact. Did we really need the four pages on spam porn to emphasise that Sim has no friends?

Not a single of Jonathan Coe’s novels since his acknowledged masterpiece of 1994, What a Carve Up!, that crazed, raging, manically and tragically hilarious dissection of Thatcher’s Britain, has come close to matching it. It is a fact that Coe is not unaware of: subsequent books attempted similar state-of-the-nation novels – The Rotters’ Club (2001) took in the seventies and The Closed Circle (2004) the early Blair years – but the magic seemed to have gone. This, too, is an honourable stab at another state-of-the-nation novel, let down by pat, outrageously confected plotting and silly games.