Number 11 | Jonathan Coe

Number 11

Published by Viking in hardback and paperback

Jonathan Coe’s eleventh novel is a metafictional labyrinth of allusions and connections to films, literary works and his own previous books (notably, What a Carve Up!), and another of his polymorphous ‘state of the nation’ addresses. It is a work of enormous confidence, audacity and inventiveness that takes the reader on an intriguing journey from past to present, from Birmingham via Beverley in Yorkshire to Australia and South Africa and London, from innocence to something very dark indeed.

I have only recently discovered the fiction of Jonathan Coe. Over the past few weeks I have read What a Carve Up! and The Rain Before It Falls, and now Number 11. What a Carve Up! hit me like a bolt of lightning. I was quite unprepared for its humour and moral seriousness, its sadness and its anger, the strange sense of empowerment I felt when I read it. It haunts me still. Neither was I prepared for the complete change of tone provided by The Rain Before It Falls, which is realistic and tender, wistful and yearning. It is as unobtrusively interested in its own structure as it is in the patterns and motifs it half-glimpses within the ebb and flow of ‘ordinary’ lives.

And now Number 11, which feels to me like a novel with one foot planted in Coe’s previous work and the other striding into the future. It exhibits many of the author’s major preoccupations: the imbrication of past and present; technology’s power to distort human relationships; the madness of greed and the erosion of privacy; the boorishness and humourlessness of the monied classes; personal failure, loss and inadequacy. I also detect a new note of understanding for the very rich, whose wealth excludes them from their own lives and whose anomie renders them incapable of feeling much beyond frustration and anger – they are the victims of their own ruthlessness.

Number 11, the author told me in an interview (to be posted here soon), partly owes its existence  to the film Dead of Night (1945), a classic British horror/ghost compendium whose five-part structure inspired the novel’s form. The Haunted Mirror sequence in Dead of Night is one of cinema’s great highlights. Coe uses the mirror as the looking-glass boundary between rich and poor, master and servant, and imbues it with echoes of the myth of Orpheus as reimagined by Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950). This notion of a descent – literal and mythic – is one that prowls the outer edges of all three novels, but in Number 11 it is graced with a beautiful image of healing that I found tremendously moving.

So what is Number 11 about, exactly? Well, it is about Rachel, episodes from whose early life are recounted in the gothic dream that comprises part one of the novel. It is also about her friend Alison and her mother Val, whose struggles with the politically induced poverty inaugurated by George ‘We’re-all-in-this-together’ Osborne’s austerity measures culminate in humiliation and defeat. It’s also about Laura, an academic at loggerheads with her dead husband’s obsession with finding a lost film that enthralled him as a child. It’s also about the police officer Nathan Pilbeam – ‘Nate of the Station’ as he is known – whose unorthodox scholarly techniques of detection bring him into the orbit of the dreaded Winshaw family (from What a Carve Up!), the few surviving remnants of which continue to despoil and impoverish humanity. Oh, and it’s about Sir Gilbert and Madiana Gunn, whose immense riches are spent to no good purpose and with no great enjoyment. It is Rachel’s encounter with the Gunns that ties the whole edifice together (quite literally) in a tale of horror that refers back to the novel’s opening and brings to mind Quatermass and the Pit (TV series 1958; film 1967).

If all this sounds confusing, be advised that it isn’t. ‘Compulsively readable’ has long been a cliché of back-cover blurbs, but in this case it is simply the truth. I find I cannot stop reading and enjoying Jonathan Coe’s novels. It’s not simply their experiments with form and their capacity to surprise, or their humour and pathos and the peculiar dread they can inspire. Somehow these books tap into a collective cultural memory shared by people of a certain age that is, I think (and I believe Coe thinks), no longer possible for younger generations because it has been shattered by the relentless marketization and fragmentation demanded by today’s psychopathic breed of capitalism. Number 11’s recurrence to the past has been misunderstood by some reviewers as nostalgia for a golden age that never existed. For me, it is about society’s own idea of itself, its capacity for self-understanding, our ability to live in something other than the continuous, commoditized, unreflecting present. Number 11 thus makes a serious political point several layers beneath – perhaps eleven layers beneath – party political discourse and facile social commentary.

Punning names like the Winshaws and Madiana Gunn should alert us to Coe’s literary provenance in the great tradition of British satiric and picaresque prose that stretches back to Fielding, Smollett and Swift. It is ironic that he does not think much of contemporary satire which, he believes, robs us of our anger and our activism, substituting instead a cosy and companionable cynicism that poses little threat to the ruling class. Some of Number 11’s most amusing quips relate to the army of identically dressed, young stand-up comedians who help insulate us from our own rebellious impulses.

I look forward to reading more of Jonathan Coe’s novels. If you are new to his work, Number 11 is a great place to start. It will open your heart to a unique talent.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for a tantalizing review, Jack, it’s whetted my appetite. I’ve also recently discovered Jonathan Coe’s work – I’m just finishing What a Carve Up! – and am becoming a committed fan. It’s so good to read serious fiction that deals with contemporary issues with equal measures of humour and moral indignation. Looking forward to the upcoming interview blog!

  2. Thank you, Jack, for singing of Coe’s writings. I very much look forward to savouring his important work.

  3. OK, some hefty themes here but it sounds as if there’s a compelling story – or whole collection of interlinked stories – and energizing humour to be savoured too. I’m going out to get a copy, and will be trying to persuade my book group to give this one a go too. I wonder, Jack, whether you’d advise reading What a Carve-Up! first in order fully to appreciate Number 11? Thanks.

    • Thank you Ally. It’s not necessary to read What a Carve Up! to enjoy Number 11, but if you didn’t, it would deprive you of the pleasurable frisson of recognition when you get stuck in to the later book. What a Carve Up! is, in my opinion, the better of the two books, and completely dazzling. So it would be a good place to start for your book group.

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