The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim

The dominant flavor of a Jonathan Coe novel typically blends comic social commentary with a sentimental longing for a Britain that existed before Margaret Thatcher's rise to power. In this regard, Coe has written against the grain. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the same year he published the second of his nine novels, politics—in the sense of an activity that ordinary people might care about passionately—has by and large been a horribly passé subject in the UK. Coe has rejected that consensus, but only to recover politics as an object of nostalgia—the only way it could be made palatable to many of his readers.


For those unfamiliar with Coe, this might sound inexcusably earnest. But he is anything but dry. In these vibrant and ingenious novels, politics is something that reverberates through all corners of national life. It is not a simple matter of policy. The spirit of the times is revealed in movies, TV shows, food, fashion, and music, all of which are more frequent points of reference for Coe than literature. In his 2001 novel The Rotters' Club, even the switch of a teenage band from prog rock to punk, "fuelled by sheer, unpolluted delight in trashing something, kicking something over," appears as part of a destructive strain in British culture that will culminate in Thatcher's declaration that "There is no such thing as society." Politics, it seems, is simply a word for what we all do together.


Though it has a contemporary setting, the latest novel is marked by Coe's habitual nostalgia. Behind the eponymous Maxwell Sim is a character made famous in a BBC sitcom of the seventies, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The consonance between Sim and Perrin, men in crisis during epoch-making recessions, will resonate for British readers of a particular age. It is one note among many in the book suggesting that thirty years of radical transformation in British society have brought nothing better in terms of innovation than GPS navigation or the designer latte. But the title, playing as it does on a fairly obscure allusion, hints also at the limited appeal of a novel that otherwise has a lot to recommend it.


The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is narrated by Max, and he, to put it kindly, is difficult company. A middle-aged father of one, whose wife has recently left him after many sexless years, he is clinically depressed and on compassionate leave from his job in a department store. Freed from work, Max is condemned to isolation. His cellphone snubs him. His Facebook wall remains stubbornly blank. His email intray is a sump for spam. Communications technology mocks him with its zillion opportunities to connect. He momentarily escapes from the doldrums when recruited to take part in a publicity stunt for a start-up. Max's mission is to deliver a shipment of eco-friendly toothbrushes to the Shetland Isles, the northernmost region of the United Kingdom. On his circuitous route, he wrestles with his past, learns how he was conceived because two London pubs shared the same name, and develops an unhealthy obsession with the tragic English yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who died in his attempt to circumnavigate the globe singlehanded in 1969. A quiet insanity beckons.


Periodically enlivened by stories from narrators other than Max (most importantly, his ex-wife and poet-manqué father) and occasionally very funny, the book works hard to keep a dull hero interesting. But Max's voice puts Coe in a straitjacket. Absent is the elegiac lyricism of the previous novel, The Rain Before It Falls. In contrast, Max is a painfully diffident narrator. "The first thing I noticed about this woman—or thought I noticed … Does that make sense? … Does that seem over-the-top to you? Well, never mind—it may be a little blunt" —these are typical locutions. On top of that, Max conceals a secret from himself and the reader so effectively that when it surfaces at the end of the book it's a bit of a letdown. I won't reveal what happens, but it is as unsatisfying as any case of deus ex machina.


These problems aside, the book has a formal elegance typical of Coe, who masterfully equips the best of his novels with trap-like ironies that snap shut on his characters without bending them out of shape. Still, it is a novel that will speak most eloquently to a narrow tranche of readers familiar with the minutiae of life in modern Britain. It's tempting to see that as intentional. Like its hero, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is adrift in a world where communication and companionship are often at odds. It is a book in search of community. It won't make it onto many critics' year-end roundups of "important" books. But among a small and not undiscerning audience this novel deserves to find a home. As with the prog rock of which Coe is a fan, there's something touching and admirable here that raises this book above its shortcomings.

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