Jonathan Coe (2010) The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim Alfred K. Knopf, New York; 400 pp.; eISBN 978-0-307-59555-3
Maxwell Sim is forty-eight, an only child and a lonely man. His mother died years ago, his introspective and distant father went off to Australia, and six months ago his wife Caroline and daughter Lucy upped and left. Since Catherine’s departure he has been severely depressed and unable to work. When things look bleakest, an old friend offers Maxwell an opportunity at a toothbrush manufacturing company. All he has to do is drive to the Shetland Islands, do some filming and get publicity for a new line of products. It should be the start of a recovery, but for Maxwell Sim it is the beginning of a descent into a private purgatory.
Caroline bought Maxwell a ticket to Australia so that he could attempt some reconciliation with his father. It didn’t go well, but the sight of a Chinese woman and her daughter in a restaurant, and the intimacy of their company, inspires him. He returns to England and on the way meets a young woman named Poppy who is kind, even if he doesn’t realise that at the time.
Through Poppy, Maxwell becomes familiar with the story of Donald Crowhurst, a man who tried to fake a round-the-world sailing trip, went mad, then disappeared at sea. As Maxwell heads off for the Shetlands, he increasingly sees his trip as a reflection of, and then indistinguishable from, the voyage of Crowhurst.
On his journey he visits Caroline, now more attractive and happy in her new life. He has an unsatisfactory dinner with Lucy, collects a folder of poems and a short story from his father’s flat near Birmingham and looks up an old school friend in Edinburgh. These meetings, and the reading that he does along the way, radically re-write the history of his childhood and the relationship of his parents, and eventually bring him face to face with some cold, ugly truths about his own character.
There are some deliciously comic moments in this novel, some that come up on you by stealth, some based on coincidence, and others simply knockabout. Coe manages Maxwell’s descent into madness with a sure hand. Indeed, at times I could sense Coe enjoying himself as he was banging out the words. Maxwell Sim is a very sad character, but one for whom we cannot help but have a deep sympathy.
There is also some biting social criticism – a common element in Coe’s work. Often in passing detail or oblique comment, the lunacy of modern Britain is exposed. It is a country dominated by snake oil salesmen in business, politics and culture. An old woman who lives opposite Maxwell’s father’s flat is driven to tears by the degradation she sees around her. Old values of craftsmanship, sociability, community and self-respect have been corrupted by money and greed, but at the same time the lowest common denominator proves far too seductive. Maxwell himself cannot live without shopping malls, soulless franchises and fast food on the motorway services.
Jonathan Coe is a fine satirist and a trenchant critic of contemporary life. He has a keen ear for the drivel that passes as conversation in modern society and a sharp eye for the bleakness of the rich societies in which we live.
However, the final chapter of this book sparked two contradictory sets of emotions. On the one hand I was disappointed at the crudely engineered ending that uses the device of the author intervening in the story. It’s a tired old trick, and it was ironic to find it in this novel given that I had previously compared Philip Hensher unfavourably with Jonathan Coe partly because Hensher employed the same technique. After a great and giddy ride on Maxwell’s journey, the final chapter gave the impression that Coe had run out of steam and out of ideas in terms of the plot. I would love to think that he was being playful and giving the reader a cheap and tawdry ending as a final comment on modern life, but if I am being honest with myself, that just won’t wash.
On the other hand, the sketches of ideas in the final chapter provide a fascinating insight into the creative process. The chapter reinforces the idea that creativity is not so much inventing something totally new, but rather taking the strands from the world around you and weaving them together in a way that is very different to what has gone before. It is the stuff of paradigm shifts in science and technology as much as the foundation of great works of art.
So what to do? If you just want to read a great novel, don’t read the final chapter. If you enjoy stories and are inured to disappointment in life, continue on. And if you want to ponder the mechanics of creativity as well as read a great novel, leave the final chapter and read it a few months down the track. It will be rewarding in its own right.