Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim

The new issue of Bookforum features a very sharp review by Ed Park of Jonathan Coe's new novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. I read it right after I read the novel, and it crystallized something I'd been thinking about vaguely throughout my reading: Maxwell Sim is a novel that absolutely shouldn't work, but does because of Coe's inventiveness, wit, interest in structure, and keen--if pessimistic--understanding of human isolation.

The difficulties Coe faces are rooted in his choice of a protagonist, a depressed, middle-aged Englishman whom Ed correctly describes as "to all appearances, the soul of dullness." There are shades here of the undistinguished middle-aged male protagonist of Charles Chadwick's It's All Right Now, a man who seems to have very little story to tell, and very little facility for telling it. Sim wanders the globe, from a dinner in Sydney with his father to the north of Scotland on a publicity stunt for a maker of eco-friendly toothbrushes, meeting up along the way with acquaintances old and new, and ruminating on the ways that ever-more pervasive communications technologies are changing our lives, our relationships, and our very sense of self.

Sounds banal, doesn't it? And it is--Maxwell Sim doesn't have any ideas about Facebook and cellphones that your chain-e-mail-forwarding uncle hasn't had. But that's part of the point: Coe puts us in the head of a character whose thoughts remain on a very basic level, a character who actively shies away from depth and analysis. (Which is the opposite of Jonathan Franzen in Freedom, whose countless banal observations about contemporary life inexplicably were meant to be taken--and were taken!--as some sort of key to our culture.)

But then Coe's intricate, unusual structure comes into play: throughout his journey, Sim encounters four texts, reproduced in the novel, written by different people, all of which do attempt to look more deeply at human life. Those texts (an account of an English sailor who went mad while pretending to sail around the world; a short story written by Sim's estranged wife about a disturbing incident from their past; an essay about an invasion of privacy by a childhood friend; and his father's account of an intense, life-changing friendship) bit by bit force Sim out of his complacent floating, even as they introduce the larger themes that lie beneath the surface ruminations about Facebook: the pressure to become what people expect us to become; the difference between real events and pseudo-events; the way that real actions and moments of life are turned into performances or rituals; the yawning gap between our interior selves, our public selves, and other people; the ease with which we misunderstand other people--and deceive ourselves. None of these texts results in anything like an epiphany for Sim--I'm reminded of a line from The Beautiful and the Damned, "it is the manner of life seldom to strike but always to wear away"--but the questions they force accumulate, and they eventually drive Sim to a breakdown.

It's after that breakdown that Coe unexpectedly transforms The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim from a good, diverting book, into a an amazing one, making a decision so daring, yet so effective, that I still can't quite believe it. (Should you want more detail, Ed's review covers it.) Coe's ability to use complicated structure and narrative game-playing not to show off but to flesh out his thematic concerns is one of his his greatest gifts (see The Winshaw Legacy)--but it is also his riskiest habit as an author. His best novel, The Rotters Club, draws much of its power from the many ambiguities, of both incident and character, that it refuses to resolve; The Closed Circle, its aptly titled sequel, was an absolutely maddening book, answering questions and closing arcs that were more interesting and powerful when left trailing. In this new novel, the risk Coe takes is even more striking, and, while I expect there will be a lot of disagreement about this, I think it works, brilliantly.

If you've not tried Coe, whose relative obscurity over here provides Ed n his review with a literary party anecdote that could have come from Waugh, start with The Rotters Club. But do eventually find your way to Maxwell Sim, if for no other reason than that it's daring, and wholly distinct from its front-table brethren--and surely daring and distinction should be rewarded?

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