Reviewed: Jonathan Coe – Number 11

Art & Culture

Number 11 was first released on hardback in October of last year. At that point the Panama Papers scandal was yet to break, so Coe’s casting of one of the novel’s principle villains as a fixer who helps syphon wealth off to various off shore havens went largely uncommented on. Now, with the paperback edition released into a post-Panama landscape, this character seems particularly well chosen. It certainly confirms that which Coe fans have known for some time; that there are few other novelists as skilled at pin pointing the techniques odious free-marketeers have been fleecing Britain with since the 1970s.

Ostensibly the book is a sequel to Coe’s award winning satire What A Carve Up.  Written 20 years apart, it’s no coincidence that Coe has finally felt obliged to knock out a companion piece to Carve Up. That novel was written in the sordid final days of John Major’s stint as Prime Minister. It picked through the machinations of the monstrous, aristocratic Winshaw family, as they monetised every aspect of British society, this written against a back drop of 90s Tory sleaze and Tory back stabbing, privatisation being pushed through in a majority of British industries, and grasping ministers eyeing up the health service and the education system. Thank God that’s all in the past, eh!

There’s a nice moment of meta-commentary in Number 11 where Coe has one of his characters – in this case a dead cultural theorist – muse on the nature of the sequel: “Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is oblique, slippery.” Coe may be suggesting that Number 11 is no simple follow up to What A Carve Up, but in many ways, the relationship isn’t so very slippery – both books take a grim delight in exposing the British elite as buccaneers and crooks, and both offer little hope for the future. In What A Carve Up  that exposition was delivered through the detective work of a strangely disconnected narrator. In Number 11 it comes through a series of interconnected stories broadly following the lives of two middle class girls growing up from the late 90s to the present day.

Written in 2014, there was plenty the coalition government were getting up to for Coe to return to the themes of What A Carve Up. Food banks, swathes of West London turning into mausoleums of vast empty houses, and rife tax avoidance schemes all provide familiar backdrops for his interconnecting series of stories.  He’s picked up a few new targets along the way. The cruelty and idiotic public humiliation of Im a Celebrity style show offers him easy laughs, Coe in vicious, witty mood as he puts his heroine – a 90s one hit wonder- through an ordeal that’s rigged against her from the off. When she returns to everyday life, the venom directed against her from strangers seems the logical conclusion in a country where mean spiritedness has become the currency of entertainment.

He also manages to squeeze in ruminations on the awards industry, the corrupting, celebrity nature of high profile policing, the death of David Kelly, the exploitation of immigrant workers, the slow collapse of the middle classes, and – surprisingly – the rise of political comedy. This last takes place in a murder side plot Coe wanders into half way through the book; a killer has decided that since political satire diffuses people’s rage over politicians crimes into apathetic laughter, he is going to bump off comedians. This is made somewhat more complicated in the telling, as Coe writes the section (called The Winshaw Prize) in a style not entirely dissimilar to an Ealing comedy, replete with bumbling coppers, visual gags, and a spot of chaste romancing. In a strangely snarkey review over on the Observer, Nick Cohen decried Coe for this part of Number 11, claiming that Coe’s own pronouncements on satire (his views match that of his killer, even if his conclusions on what to do about it are less dramatic) preclude him from then using comedy in his writing. This is wilfully pig-headed from Cohen – Coe has previously made clear that “satire and comedy are two quite different beasts – although many people insist on using the terms interchangeably – and no amount of rationalism or essay-writing can undermine my allegiance to comedy“. It would seem likely that he is using The Winshaw Prize to prove his point – to artfully illustrate the difference between satire and comedy. You don’t have to agree with him to enjoy the romping along.

The Winshaw family are present in Number 11, although this time they are even further behind the scenes than before – a part of the very fabric of Britain, their name blessing award ceremonies and their companies involved in every business under the sun. Even told with a wry grin, it’s a grim indictment of the entrenchment of power. It’s also accurate- Coe has well recognised that with Cameron and his well-bred chums in charge, the dismantling of society that could only be dreamed of under Thatcher has been undertaken with a renewed vigour bordering on glee. In What A Carve Up his protagonists still had food on the table, jobs to go to, and a roof over their head. In Number 11 poverty has become a crushing reality of no work, no money, no heat and little food.  As a barometer of the country, the distance between the quality of life enjoyed in the two books is a depressing space to contemplate.

Bizarrely the book finishes with a sideways leap into fright movie territory. Coe’s too good a writer not to signpost the forthcoming carnage throughout the novel, but it seems an abrupt switch never the less. If it’s an attempt to emulate the jerky editing of a B movie (and I’m not writing this off as a possibility) then it’s a successful one – one minute you’re reading about oligarchs buying up London, the next there’s a beast on the rampage. If it’s a metaphor for an ancient avenging force raging against the bastards bleeding Britain dry, it’s pleasing if a little bit unexpected. Coe has mentioned his love of the comedy/ horror genre in the past – this seems to be his decision to head at it full tilt. It’s a somewhat divisive tactic- I can imagine a fair proportion of readers left scratching their heads. But should you have any sympathy towards the concept of shape-shifting monstrosities decimating the moneyed elites of London, you’ll make it through just fine.

Jonathan Coe's Number 11 is available now from Penguin