By Jonathan Coe
333 pages, $27.95
“Number 11” is Jonathan Coe's 11th novel, but is that what the title means? Maybe; but if you watch the BBC news, you have a clue to more, much more.
Number 11 is the address on Downing Street of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s home in London. It’s more than a few other things as well: a bus route in Birmingham, the address of the Mad Bird Woman’s house on Needless Alley in the novel, and seemingly unrelated other items as well.
Remember that you’re in the presence of Britain’s arguably best current novelist. Given this, and knowing Coe’s brilliant satiric mind, good luck to you for figuring out a literary crossword puzzle of a political novel, disguised in the form of a piece of fiction. Want to give it a try?
Cast your mind back for a moment. Perhaps you remember Coe’s “Expo 58,” accorded the best book of the year in 2013. Here’s a clue about Coe’s method to solving “Number 11” from that earlier review.
Coe explained “Expo 58” this way: “My latest novel can be read in a number of ways: as a traditional English ‘comic novel’ a la Henry Fielding, Michael Frayn and Kingsley Amis; as an homage to British comedy films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s; as a parody of Cold War spy fiction ….”
Given that flurry of possibilities from an earlier work, one can hardly expect Coe to change his spots and be more direct with the reader. If you accord that the Shakespearean description of finding direction by indirection out as accurate, I’d make a guess and say that you’ll like “Number 11.”
To begin, start with the two girls in the novel, Rachel and Alison. They are ten years old when they connect, and despite arguments with each other and an occasional slap, they remain friends for years. They are Coe’s amanuenses on the spot, ingesting his remarks about how England is falling apart as they grow up, and reacting in real time to Coe’s indigestions about politics, and the social fabric disintegrating.
After one of Rachel’s and Alison’s walks in the wood near Rachel’s grandparents’ home, they pop back into the house for a sense of sanctuary. It didn’t turn out that way, Coe reports. Rachel reports,
“We returned to find that the living room was full of people, Full of old people… The local Conservative Club,” gran told them. The group was echoing its complaint about the new England that they didn’t care for. It included vagrancy, the presence of undesirables, ethnic minorities. Conservatives liked the old England better, the traditional and a bit out of date.
Gran tells Rachel, “Frankly, right now I think I’m one of those people who’s starting to believe that none of it matters in the slightest.”
Rachel and Alison shape-shift their identities, downgrading their own good characters, as they get older. For example, Alison, a black girl, is later found out and put in the Eastwood Park prison in Gloucestershire for 26 weeks for benefits fraud. She claimed benefits from the state as a black, disabled lesbian. In fact, she was not disabled.
Another unhappy incident of England in decline: those with a memory will recall the country getting into the war against Saddam’s Iraq as an American ally. England’s PM Tony Blair was George W. Bush’s new best friend. Perhaps you will remember the death of Dr. David Kelly. Kelly was a United Nations weapons inspector who mysteriously died the morning of July 18, 2003.
His body was found propped up against a tree in woodland about a mile north of his village, Longworth, where he took walks. A verdict of suicide was quickly announced, Kelly earlier made the case on the BBC that the claim of Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction, was sexed up.
There’s more, there’s always more with Coe. A dead academic named Roger interested in paranoid fiction becomes a set-piece that could be a short story on its own. Rachel takes up writing her memoir, something she had tried to do unsuccessfully earlier, to stave off boredom that is beginning to provoke delusions after a job with an obscenely wealthy family as a minder for their son. She needs a real task.
These elaborate set-ups are the keystone of Coe’s belief that countries are no longer governed by honorable people. And the result is a loss of innocence for nations.
Look around you, an NPR analysis offers about the decline of nations.
Food banks now sprout where gardens once grew.
Michael D. Langan frequently reviews books for The Buffalo News.