Monday, March 20, 2006

Jonathan Coe & Mr Mitchell

This weekend I took down from yonder shelf Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club, and was powerless to do anything else but read it to the very end. His novel The Winshaw Legacy was one of those great bought-for-a-buck-at-the-library discoveries*, and I also enjoyed The House of Sleep . . . not to mention his recent B.S. Johnson bio, Like a Fiery Elephant.

There are traces of his LAFE/BSJ research in TRC — the 27-chapter format might be a nod to BSJ's 27-pamphlet novel, and a very minor character, a Pakistani worker named Zulfikar, must allude to BSJ's best friend, novelist Zulfikar Ghose. Synopsized, TRC seems a fairly straightforward book, a social novel focusing on several interlocking families in '70s Birmingham, with the tongue-tied high-schooler Benjamin Trotter as (seemingly) the organizing intelligence. But the structural tactics are varied and fascinating—articles from the school paper (including a brilliant/hilarious review of a Yes album), a vocabulary-deficient man attempting a crossword, a short story written by Benjamin, etc. (Coe's other books play with structure as well, so maybe this bit of BSJ influence should be seen as having always been present in Coe.)

A sequel emerged last year, The Closed Circle, which I hope to read soon. I like the idea of books beyond that, sort of a Dance to the Music of Time thing (perhaps with Benjamin's annoying brother Paul emerging as a sort of Widmerpoole character) — I don't know if that's in the cards...

My "new favorite book" was supposed to be David Mitchell's tremendous Cloud Atlas, which I finished recently, but it's getting some strong competition from TRC.

Which book do Dizzyheads prefer?

I should note that I began Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in January and it was rapidly becoming my new favorite book. But then I needed to read other stuff and JS&MN was so distracting I had to tie it up with string so that I wouldn't open it. I was just getting back into the Norrellian swing of things when TRC hit me. Yow!

That's all for now.

* * *

*Further story about The Winshaw Legacy — my first copy was lent, then stolen (by a felonious, unknown third party); my second copy was lent, then lost on a trip to Europe; I gave up on owning a copy, then found the British paperback, entitled What a Carve Up!, at the old Bryn Mawr Bookstore on the Upper East Side. I am not lending it.


Blogger Devin McKinney said...

Ever seen this?


12:24 AM  
Blogger Maggie Warren Murphy said...

I read The Rotters' Club in two days at the beginning of the summer between junior and senior years of high school. I think I can safely assert (although I have never done so) that it defined the last two years of my adolescence, however generationally-displaced by two decades and an ocean, by making me regard everything I did with premature twinkles of nostalgia for my teen-aged selfhood as I lived it. I remember giggling at "the Wanking Option" and reading the last fifteen-or-so pages without taking a breath. I have not read The Closed Circle yet. It's in my little sister's room. I don't know, maybe I'll get to it soon.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Fascinating photos, Mr. Hawk! (Interested parties should check out MAGIC CIRCLES: THE BEATLES IN DREAM AND HISTORY, which is the only Fab Four book you need.)

And MWM — re premature nostalgia: I'm reminded of something in Nabokov's SPEAK, MEMORY along those lines, on my shortlist of Nabokovian high points - will find the quote and post it soon.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Jenny D said...

I still think that the whole tying-up-with-string thing is the funniest idea I have ever heard....

I loved TRC. I had read all of Coe's previous fiction in grad school, without exactly loving it but it clearly resonated with me to the extent that I bothered to get everything and read it. But The Rotter's Club seems to me one of those books in which a mid-career writer of undoubted intelligence and accomplishment suddenly writes something at a completely different level than anything they've produced before.

(I still haven't read Cloud Atlas. I've got a kind of block on it, I keep on checking it out of various libraries--I've had it at least 3 separate times now, god knows why I don't just buy the paperback--and not reading it. I was liberated last summer when I had a realization that I DO NOT HAVE TO READ BOOKS I DO NOT WANT TO READ; and yet it is still nagging at me that I have not read it, and I'm sure I will soon [tho his newest sounds more my cup of tea]. I read some pages at the beginning & found it very well-written but just not appealing to me at all.)

10:43 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

I should have taken a picture of the book with string around it — it looked like a parcel. Perhaps I can re-create it later . . .

Jenny, I think you *especially* would like Cloud Atlas — maybe if you buy a copy, tear out and throw away the cover, and read the sections as individual pamphlets, you will forget it is "Cloud Atlas" and instead encounter it afresh. (I'm being somewhat silly, but the books-within-books are themselves fragments, with at least one of them *explicitly* described as being torn in half.)

Aside from the individual stories, I liked that the whole thing, the whole structure, kept me on my toes — the aesthetics of *surprise*.

MWM: The Speak, Memory passage continues to elude me, and I'm starting to wonder if it's from a different VN book . . .

11:37 PM  
Blogger Akiva said...

MWM lent me the Rotters' last summer, and from what I remember, I enjoyed the storytelling but found the idea of each child as a cultural symbol a bit contrived.

White Teeth seemed somehow more ambitious and less schematic, as far as British personal/political coming-of-age stories go.

And do the kids' conversations at the beginning and end remind anyone else of Titanic's plot structure?

5:55 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Oh Akiva, you must repent! I don't know that I saw each child as a symbol (I think The Winshaw Legacy, which is much more a satire, goes that route — though to brilliant/wicked effect)...rather, a product of his/her environment (but not even necessarily an obvious one — look how different the Trotter children are).

8:04 AM  
Blogger Jenny D said...

I liked White Teeth, but I loved The Rotter's Club--it's emotionally affecting in a way that I don't find ZS's to be. Coe is definitely a schematic writer, but this one was so good that I sort of just didn't notice whatever might have been going on schematically; and seriously (am I allowed to have spoilers), is not the moment when the bomb goes off the most heartbreaking thing you have ever read?

10:45 AM  
Blogger Akiva said...

It seemed to be that the book had a uniquely British frame of reference -- notice how hard it is to find in the US -- but I'm obviously wrong, since none of you admirers are British.

I think White Teeth bit off a larger chunk of UK socioeconomic struggle than the Rotters', especially in terms of race, faith, and war. Then again, different settings, different eras... Maybe Coe's novel only suffers in comparison, and because I read it after Smith's.

Zadie Smith is an equally schematic writer, but I can remember Irie and the Iqbal twins vividly (from five years ago!), while Doug Anderton and Ben Trotter have somehow coalesced into the same person.

This is all to say that I'm leaving for London in half an hour, for the first time, and I'm excited...

11:42 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

The bomb thing is something of a spoiler, but then *another* thing happens later, related to the bombing, that just made the hair on the back of my neck stand up (sorry, guys) —

Re the British frame of reference: I was going to post something earlier to the effect that "I'm not really an anglophile," but it's sort of a meaningless statement without a lot of qualifiers — and the fact is, I worship Powell and like me some Wodehouse and think Coe's great (and on and on). And, uh, I read the TLS.

I just tried to qualify the above graf and sounded idiotic, so I'll stop now!

12:13 PM  

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