A conversation with Jonathan Coe

The author of "The Rotters' Club" talks about "pleasuring the reader," Henry Fielding, Dickens, Angus Wilson and Margaret Thatcher as a feminist icon.


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Charles Taylor
March 13, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)

If there's a contemporary novelist who combines sharp and sometimes savage social commentary with the classic, full-blooded pleasures novels are supposed to give readers as well as Jonathan Coe does, I must have missed him. Coe's fourth novel, the 1994 "What a Carve Up!" (published in the U.S. as "The Winshaw Legacy"), was a big, Dickensian tale of a young writer who has withdrawn into a benumbed, hermetic existence, hired to write the biography of a family of British monsters who represent the ethic of the Thatcher years. In the great tradition of Dickens' villains, the Winshaws are obscenely alive. Thatcher's ruthless social engineering is summed up by one Winshaw, announcing his plans to scrap free school meals. He writes to a cohort that the benefit is not only saving money but that "a whole generation of children from working-class or low-income families will be eating nothing but chocolate and crisps every day. Which means, in the end, that they'll grow up physically weaker and mentally slower ... As every general knows, the secret of winning any war is to demoralize the enemy." The novel ends in a revenge fantasy so extreme and bloody that you don't know whether to feel exhilarated or appalled.

In Coe's new novel, "The Rotters' Club" (the first half of which will essentially be one large novel -- he is currently writing the second half, "The Closed Circle"), the author turns to the '70s, particularly the political and social morass that paralyzed Britain and also gave birth to punk. Following a group of teenage students, Coe's contemporaries, the novel is both a vivid social portrait and a remembrance of his own adolescent discoveries (though not a nostalgic one). Some of the characters, young Thatcherites in the making, echo the characters in "The Winshaw Legacy" and the novel that followed, "The House of Sleep." They are far too varied a lot to be classified by any one ideology, though. Combined with the adolescent thrill of discovery is the slight chill of maturing, the sense of separating from the people and passions you once thought were an inseparable part of you.

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What it shares with its predecessors is Coe's belief in what he calls "pleasuring the reader." He provides multiple plots, a great belief in how accident and coincidence determine fate and the joy of losing yourself in a story. As well as writing "The Closed Circle," Coe is working on a biography of B.S. Johnson, a now forgotten English novelist who committed suicide in 1973 at the age of 40 and who he cites as a huge influence. Coe spoke to me from his home in London.

In the States, we've gone through a few phases with the '70s, from revilement to retro chic. What was it that made you want to write about the decade?

Well, yeah, we've been through both of those phases. I don't know if England lags behind the States or is ahead of the States. We've finished with the '70s retro chic revival, we've done the '80s retro-chic revival and on to the '90s. So things like that move far too fast for a mere novelist to be able to keep up with them. Well, mainly it's because I'm not a writer who's comfortable with writing about periods that I can't remember firsthand. And I wanted to go back in time because I wanted ["The Rotters' Club"] to be a novel about how adolescence works out when you get into early middle age, which determined the time frame from the characters being about 12 or 13 to start with, and ended up with, at the end of the second book, [them being] in their early 40s. And so that kind of by necessity landed me back in the '70s because it's the earliest period I can remember vividly. I have only very hazy memories of the 1960s. So it was primarily a desire to write about that period in one's life rather than that period in history or in British culture or whatever. But, having said that, it is a decade I'm fascinated by and have complicated feelings about. Because it was when I was an adolescent experiencing all those sort of exciting discoveries you do at that age, and at the same time, politically, it was a stagnant, confrontational decade in Britain. And there was a lot of unrest going on, in the immigration sphere, and the industrial sphere, both of which I glance at in the book. So once I'd got all that personal and wider material in front of me, I realized I had quite a range of moods, quite an explosive mixture to put together.

The only other places I've encountered descriptions of the English political and social morass of the '70s -- the strikes and power cuts and so on -- are in accounts of the origins of punk.

Nonfiction accounts?

Yes. Particularly the essays of Greil Marcus and Jon Savage's book "England's Dreaming."

I'm a great fan of both of those writers and particularly Jon's book. Yeah, I don't know why it should be that nonfiction writers have got there first. They often do these days. I sometimes think that we fiction writers lag behind nonfiction counterparts in adventurousness, willingness to tackle forgotten areas of history but ... we get there in the end. [laughs]

I want to pay you a compliment, and hope it comes off that way. More than anyone working right now, you seem to me a very political writer. But you're not writing tracts. These are novels, but novels that take in a bigger picture. I'm wondering if that comes from a conviction that contemporary literature has gotten too inward, or that there's an unwillingness to bring in a larger picture?

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Ah, well, I have no talent for nonfiction, that's my problem. I'm trying to write a nonfiction book at the moment, slot it in between the novels, and it really is like wading through quicksand compared to writing fiction. I took a couple of weeks out to write a screenplay and the joy of being able to make up dialogue, and have characters do what you want them to do for a few weeks is just indescribable. I don't know, I don't really have a view about what my contemporaries are doing, except that I enjoy individual writers and so on. "What a Carve Up!" was written in response to a slew of pamphleteering and rather morose novels about Thatcherism that had started to come out in the early '90s. I found myself responding to those in a complicated way, because politically I was very much in sympathy with them, but as a reader I found them dampening.

Would you name some of those?

Ahhh, no, I don't think so. [laughs] But I felt there was no reason why, particularly because the '80s had been in so many ways a vibrant, energetic, ruthless, dynamic decade, there was no reason why some of that energy shouldn't be tapped into and feed into the novel, even when I wrote about that stuff in a disapproving way. So right from then I suppose, not just entertainment, "entertainment" is a slightly too narrow word for it, but I suppose pleasuring the reader has been very high on my list of priorities when I sit down to write a book, sit down to read a book, and I try to keep that in sight as I do what I'm doing. The sort of expansiveness of them is a lack of imaginative discipline in a way [laughs]. I just can't keep things out. Once I grab a handful of all this material I do try very hard to organize it, and structure it, because I think that structure and patterns are things readers latch on to quite quickly and get a lot of pleasure out of. So I'm very conscious of that. But at the same time, I have trouble keeping things out of books, which is why I don't write short stories because they turn into novels.

Everything comes together in these books; chance meetings and coincidences turn out to play a part in the overall design. And there's a quote in "The Rotters' Club" from one of the characters where he says, "Only people with a deep love and knowledge of tradition understand it well enough to realize that radical, sometimes brutal measures can be needed to keep it alive." When I read that, I thought it said something about how you write. On the one hand, there are very modern devices, and yet to me you're writing 19th century novels. They're rich, they're books to get lost in. And the writers who come to mind are Dickens and Angus Wilson.

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A lot of people talk about Angus Wilson in relation to me, which leaves me nonplused really because I've tried to read his books and not enjoyed them. But you can try to read books at the wrong time or for the wrong reasons. But I've got a bit of life left, and I will come to Angus Wilson at some point, I'm sure, because there's clearly, from lots and lots of feedback I've had, quite an affinity between what he did and what I do. Dickens, obviously, is a great hero. I'm shy of comparisons to Dickens because he's one of the absolute greats and it's silly to compare a contemporary novelist with someone ... His energy, in terms of not just imaginative energy, but in terms of output, he's an almost mythical figure to me. I can't quite believe that Dickens lived and did what he did. The writer I feel the most affinity with -- you said you felt my books are 19th century novels, I think they're 18th century novels -- is Fielding, Henry Fielding, he's the guy who does it for me. Fielding was who I wrote my doctoral thesis on. He was the writer who, not inspired me to write, turned my writing around completely, set it on the path it followed ever since.

From what to what?

I discovered Fielding when I was 16, this is illustrative of "The Rotters' Club" books, the time we're talking about, and also this thing that runs through all my books that so many important things in our lives happen to us by accident. We were misinformed by a careless schoolteacher that Fielding was going to be a set text next term, we were made to read it over the holidays, and when we got back, he looked very apologetic and sheepish and said, sorry, it should have been Jane Austen, you've all got to go away and read "Emma." Everyone else was furious about this because of the weeks they'd wasted with this, but this had introduced me to "Joseph Andrews" and I would have found it eventually, but at that particular time, it was a revelatory reading moment for me. And up till then I'd been writing comic fiction, for recreation I guess. Kingsley Amis springs to mind, though I've never been a great fan of Kingsley Amis. I think I was trying to write like Evelyn Waugh and I wound up writing like Kingsley Amis. And then Fielding just opened up for what could be done with the novel in terms of architecture, you could have multiple plotting and complicated interrelationships on a large scale. That really set me thinking about the novel in a completely new way.

The portrayal of the Winshaws in "What a Carve Up!," the doctor in "The House of Sleep" and some of the characters in "The Rotters' Club" walk a line between caricature and an insistence that in extremity can be found their essence.

Yes, that's true. With "The Winshaw Legacy" there was a conscious aesthetic decision to have two different kinds of characters coexisting in the same book and to see how they got along, what sort of friction is produced. The nice people, if you like, in "The Winshaw Legacy" are the conventional, rounded, three-dimensional, psychologically fleshed-out 20th century characters, where the Winshaws are 19th century Dickensian villains, or to put it in 20th century terms, cartoon characters, more "Spitting Image" puppets. I carried on -- slightly unsuccessfully I think -- doing that in "The House of Sleep" where you have this mad scientist character, Gregory Dudden, a leftover Winshaw from the previous book in a way, and I've always felt in retrospect that he doesn't exactly inhabit that novel as successfully as he should. In "The Rotters' Club," you find these figures as well, but we're moving into the realm of realism here.

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I came across a line in Rebecca West's novel "The Return of the Soldier" where an upper-class woman is describing a lower-middle-class woman and says, "I ... hated her as the rich hate the poor, as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies that are their decent homes, and introduce ugliness to the light of day." It struck me that it could have been said by one of the Winshaws, or by Margaret Thatcher. Since this is for an American publication, could you try to sum up the meaning of Thatcher's reign. Here, she's seen somewhat as a sort of British Reagan and that strikes me as pretty wide of the mark.

She was a Lincolnshire shopkeeper, that's what you have to remember about her. That was her background. Provincial and narrow-minded and unimaginative. A lack of a certain sort of imagination, a lack of feeling for how people who didn't share her values could have felt, distinguished her period in office.

Ruthlessness?

Yeah, a manic rigorousness and efficiency which is the flip side of ruthlessness, which can easily become ruthless. Definitely that, a very dynamic and forceful figure which, from this side of the water, is not how we perceive Reagan. What was she, 10 years younger than him, something like that? Revisionist historians are about to get their hands on the Thatcher years, she's probably going to be looked at again because she feels far enough away now, and we don't see her much on the political landscape in this country, she's kind of disappeared and she doesn't speak out much anymore. And quite an interesting debate was stirred up by another British novelist recently when he sort of claimed her as a feminist icon, or at least argued that she'd done far more to inspire female businesswomen and middle- and working-class women out there in the job market, and she'd done more to inspire them than any number of more highbrow feminists figureheads might have done.

I can tell you what my then British girlfriend said when Julie Burchill said the same thing in 1988.

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Yeah, this is a Julie Burchill-esque line. What did your girlfriend say?

Horseshit.

[Laughs]. I think what it boils down to is that [Thatcher] inspired certain women to become as ruthless and unpleasant as the worst kind of businessmen and politicians, really. I can't see her as a positive role model for women, myself at all. The thing is, economically, we're still in the middle of her policies. We're in the midst of a government that's eagerly carrying it forward. Her mantle has been so explicitly inherited by Tony Blair that she as a figure has become not so important. Thatcherism has become bigger than she ever was.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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