The ’70s reaches us today only through the filter of ironic appreciation—the Partridge Family, purple corduroy flares, etc. “People forget the ungodly strangeness . . . the weird things that were happening all the time,” Jonathan Coe noted in 2001’s The Rotters’ Club, his attempt to recover a true sense of the decade. Named after a 1975 album by the whimsical prog-rock band Hatfield and the North, the novel followed a gang of bright private-school kids coming of age in provincial England, in the process brilliantly re-creating an era that feels as weirdly distant from us as the 1770s.
The Rotters’ Club transported readers back to a period when the U.K. was suffering from post-imperial malaise, with symptoms ranging from the Troubles in Northern Ireland (which moved to the British mainland with IRA bomb attacks) to tensions over immigration (inner-city riots, the resurgence of the racist far right). But the ’70s was also a time of post-hippie idealism, socialist militancy, and powerful unions capable of bringing the country to a standstill. In The Closed Circle, his new sequel to The Rotters’ Club, Coe brings his characters right up to the present day and sees them look back on their childhood with puzzlement and shock at how thoroughly their universe has changed. Claire, last seen as a brainy student newspaper editor in The Rotters’ Club, now sorts through old correspondence from a factory union leader: “She was struck by Bill’s unironic use of the word ‘Brother’ when writing to the other union members, and by the way he signed off each letter with ‘Yours fraternally.’ ”
There’s no point in reading The Closed Circle unless you’ve first devoured the delightful Rotters’ Club. Coe has said he intended the novels to form a roman-fleuve, albeit with two decades of the characters’ lives dropped between the banks of the two volumes. (Arguably, he covered this period in The Winshaw Legacy, a vicious send-up of the upper classes during the Thatcher years.) Together, the books work like a fictional version of Michael Apted’s 7 Up films, monitoring a gang of chums and the surrounding culture over a convulsive 30-year period. What comes across most clearly is a sense of dampened hopes—a disbelief that substantial change is even possible. Both England and Coe’s characters have abandoned the oversize, tempestuous dreams of youth and are coming to uneasy terms with a future that’s lost its sheen.
Benjamin Trotter, the introverted prog-rock fan considered the genius of the group, still hasn’t finished his multimedia masterpiece all these years later. His brother, Paul, formerly an obnoxious neocon pip-squeak, has blossomed into an obnoxious New Labour Party apparatchik. Doug Anderton parlayed his work on the school paper (he wrote a precocious critique of Eric Clapton’s racist tendencies) into a reporter job at a major London newspaper. The school’s anarchic jester, Sean Harding, has followed a very different arc: His satirical sensibility has curdled into a worldview that verges on neo-Nazism. Meanwhile, the sole black student, Steve Richards, has lowered his expectations for a brilliant career and now works at a plastics company threatened by downsizing.
Although these characters are well drawn, they’re really just a sideshow to the novel’s real protagonist: the stagnant state of Tony Blair’s Britain. Paul Trotter is the archetypal New Labour spin-meister who pens newspaper articles about the impending Iraq war without ever taking a side. He’s also the founder of a clandestine society of power brokers called the Closed Circle (a moniker borrowed from an elite society at the boy’s old private school) whose aim is “to find ways in which the involvement of the business community in the provision of public services could be promoted to a greater extent.” This is Blairspeak for the systematic erosion of the welfare state, once the core of the Labour Party’s philosophy. In one droll set piece, Paul summons Doug to a meeting at an Anglo-Indian restaurant housed in a former library. “The walls of the galleried mezzanine area were still lined with books,” Coe writes, “so that the diners, already cushioned by the air of exclusivity generated by the extravagant prices, could experience an extra illicit
at the thought that they were eating in a space which had once opened its doors to the general public, in accordance with a now comically outdated democratic ideal.”
The phrase “closed circle” resonates all over the book, as characters hunt down clues to old mysteries and Coe weaves together his impressively labyrinthine narratives. The title is also a metaphor for the deadlock of British politics itself. As Doug remarks, “The left’s moved way over to the right, the right’s moved a tiny bit to the left, the circle’s been closed and everyone else can go fuck themselves.” Philip, another former schoolmate, struggles to write a book on the resurgence of racism but just can’t define the battle lines with any clarity. His wife scolds him that he should write about people rather than abstractions: “That’s what this book ought to be about, if you’re ever going to write it: what drives people to these positions?” Maybe it’s a confession of Coe’s own semi-failure in The Closed Circle. Ideas swamp the characters, leaving them adrift in a sea of possibility.