We didn’t quite get along with Jonathan Coe’s last novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim or, for that matter, Jonathan Coe’s previous novel, The Rain Before It Falls, but several things occurred to us as we sat down to break open the spine of his latest, Expo 58. We like Jonathan Coe and we look forward to a new Jonathan Coe book when it appears. Part of this is inevitably due to the fact that What a Carve Up! remains one of our all-time favourite novels, but there is more to it than just residual fondness for a writer who once wrote a great book. We also read and enjoyed House of Sleep, The Rotter’s Club and The Closed Circle after all. In recent months, we have also started to question our kneejerk reaction to The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, which at the time felt like it concluded with the equivalent of ‘and it was all a dream’ but actually deserves something of a rethink (we think).
Expo 58 is a sort of literary Ealing comedy. A young man, Thomas Foley (whose name is sometimes confused with the word ‘folly’), is asked by his bosses at the Central Office of Information in London (where he works as a sort of glorified pen pusher, writing all manner of public programme related copy) to represent them at the then forthcoming Expo 58, a grand post war coming together of the world’s great and good across a variety of platforms and exhibitions. The Brits plan includes a pub called the Britannia that Thomas is asked to oversee (although not quite manage – a jovial drunkard called Rossiter gets that job). Taking up the job requires Thomas to leave behind his young wife and child for a period of six months (which gives Expo 58 a link, however small, to Alison Macleod’s excellent Unexploded), which is fine with Thomas who looks forward to a role that may give his career something of a boost, and less agreeable to his poor put upon wife Sylvia. So off he trots, quickly becoming involved in a very formal English way, with a beautiful young hostess called Anneke, whilst at the same time gently ushered into the way of espionage thanks to two gentleman (who could be played by the two Fast Show tailors) and an intrigue involving a Russian who may or may not be a journalist.
A gentle comedy of manners ensues, as pointed in its own way as Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, full of barbed comments about the world to come and nicely observed comedy as to the age in which these characters find themselves (at one point, Thomas encourages a pregnant woman to smoke). Just as the climax of The Terrible Privacy… changed what we had read before, so the plan that is eventually revealed to Foley changes that which we have seen too, but again it’s nicely judged and reads well. Life is an ugly ungainly thing in the novels of Jonathan Coe, people rarely get what they want and there is a lot of wistful what might have been in Expo 58, life lived and untaken roads regretted. Nobody quite gets what they want, people make do, difficulties – reconciled or otherwise – are absorbed, paved over, forgotten (almost). Foley is a good character, a nearly man, full of hope and yet at the same time shifty, given to revisionism and fond of viewing himself from the perspective that most easily lets him off the hook. Alec Guinness could well have played him in the film, if the book had been written in 1959.
All told, Expo 58 is an enjoyable read, a quiet pleasure, a subtle, erudite novel with enough about it to set it apart from the relentless churn of other novels published this week, this afternoon, this minute. It’s also a strong addition to a career that has seen Coe write a number of novels that warrant attention from serious readers.
Any Cop?: As far as we are concerned, there is no reason that this book shouldn’t be on the Booker shortlist.