Has Jonathan Coe already grown weary of comedy? Considering how witty and winning a writer he can be, that’s an almost unbearable question. In two politely deranged novels, The House of Sleep and The Winshaw Legacy, or What a Carve–Up!, Coe’s stories are hilarious, intricate puzzles that square crafty, spirited Brits against sadistic upper-class twits. His narratives eschew Nick Hornby’s sensitive-guy rim shots and Martin Amis’s acerbic wordplay, instead letting the spark of a typo or mispronunciation bloom steadily over pages (or chapters) until its punchline bursts open.
But there aren’t many satisfying payoffs, comic or otherwise, in The Rotters’ Club, Coe’s gloomy sixth novel, about teens enduring a confusing time (the mid ’70s) and place (suburban Birmingham, in England’s sagging rust belt). The Rotters’ Club, it turns out, amounts to half of what promises to become an uncharacteristically somber saga; an author’s note announcing a sequel, The Closed Circle, hints at why this book’s resolution leaves so many plot threads not merely untied but frayed. Coe obliges us to process tremendous subplots—concerning, say, the British Leyland auto plant that employs most of the teens’ fathers, ensnared by labor-management disputes as well as the disappearance of an employee (the older sister of the protagonist’s schoolmate) who’s been sleeping with a senior steward (the father of the protagonist’s best friend).
Often, the novel’s many intricate parts manage to mesh and turn with the startling harmony you find in Robert Altman’s movies. So it’s both courageous and disappointing that Coe frames so much drama around such a bit player as The Rotters’ Club‘s hero, Ben Trotter. Ben’s a meekly pious teenage writer and composer studying at King William’s, the sort of posh academy that indulges its smart-arsed pupils by letting them publish trashy classroom gossip and wander in the woods like country squires in lieu of physical education. Ben’s classmates call him and his older sister, Lois, Bent Rotter and Lowest Rotter; he embraces the nicknames after his favorite band, Hatfield and the North, release their 1975 album that shares the novel’s name.
Petty terrors, like cruel classmates and girls, worry Ben deeply. In one suspensefully comic scene, he prays to find a swimsuit in an empty locker room after he forgets his own, so he won’t be forced to swim naked in gym class. When God apparently intervenes with an unclaimed pair of damp trunks, “nothing would matter from now on, ever again, for as long as Benjamin lived.” But Ben learns about the world’s darker realities when Birmingham’s pubs start blowing up. A gentle hippie who dates Lois is literally on the verge of proposing to her when he’s killed in an explosion that leaves her mute and institutionalized for years. (Like much in Coe’s fiction, the scene is borrowed from history; the attack of November 21, 1974, put the Birmingham Six behind bars for 15 years.) The horror shatters Ben, who wraps himself in the spacey comforts of Brian Eno and J.R.R. Tolkien while his friends explore their changing world.
Ben deserves all of our compassion, but even patient readers will wonder why Coe watches this introspective boy, staring backward at pompous art rock and fantasy novels, while Britain’s on the brink of a cathartic punk revolt. Ben’s friends, at any rate, are far more appealing characters. His best mate is Doug Anderton, an adventurous kid given to trainhopping to London, where one night he fortuitously catches the Clash playing at Fulham Old Town Hall, and later gets laid in an older girl’s flat. Ben’s certainly honorable—he visits his hospitalized sister instead of accompanying his friend on this London adventure—but Doug threatens to eclipse him as a more memorable character throughout The Rotters’ Club. Indeed, Coe indicates that Doug, and not Ben, is the one destined for prominence.
One of Jonathan Coe’s real strengths is his ear for characters’ self-expression—in breathless journal entries, petulant school-play reviews, and flatulent letters to the editor. (From one student’s school newspaper review of Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans: “In conclusion, if someone was to ask me who this album was by, and whether or not it was a masterpiece, I would be able to give the same answer: YES!!”) But Coe is never a cruel narrator; he assumes his characters’ voices with the knowing sympathy of a dedicated teacher. Even the self-absorbed Ben knows enough to reference Ulysses as he scribbles away in a pub, gushing over his new girlfriend in a 32-page sentence. Smart kid.
In a present-day scene bracketing the novel, the young relatives of two Rotters discuss the saga at hand. “Stories never end, do they?” one says. “Not really. All you can do is choose a moment to end on.” Coe’s logic gives us a realistically wistful story, but an unfinished one, abandoning numerous characters and tensions when it ends. That puts a heavy burden on the future Act II of The Rotters’ Club—and only Coe’s hardiest readers will resist the temptation to sneak out during intermission.
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Jim Lewis on John Berger: Selected Essays