Number 11. What do we immediately think of when we hear Number 11? George Osborne, quite possibly, at the moment (and that would be apposite, as Jonathan Coe’s 11th novel is a defiantly political beast). If you were a resident of Birmingham (as Coe once was) you might think of the bus that takes you around the city on a two hour circuit (a trip one of the characters of Number 11 takes when she is at her lowest ebb). Over the course of Coe’s latest – and we should add, extremely fine new novel – the number 11 also surfaces as a storage box, a table at a dinner and a subterranean floor within a vast development undertaken by one of the mega wealthy characters who loiter largely in the background to the book.
This is Coe’s take on the years since 2000, his satirical eye both roaming and inquisitive, and informed by the idea (articulated by Morrissey in Interesting Drug) that there are some bad people on the right. Yes, it’s a kind of sequel to What a Carve Up! (a novel that should be compulsory in schools by now) but only in – as one character says in an aside – a slippery and oblique way. You don’t need to read What a Carve Up! to read this but you’d be a fool if you missed out on that book. There are five quite distinct parts to the book, characters who dip in and out of the narrative, streams of story that diverge, converge, disappear or surface in illusory and elusive ways. Just as it would be difficult, possibly, to understand whether each number 11 should be examined in relation to its echo so each story stands apart in some ways even as it reflects and comments upon its neighbours.
To begin with, we meet Rachel, a young woman in a house who suspects there may be a kind of beast in the garden outside (I say she suspects, she definitely thinks she’s seen something, ‘some disturbance of the deep shadows at the very back of the garden’). Rachel reminds us of the death of David Kelly, the UN weapons inspector whose suicide or murder (it doesn’t matter which it was, in the end, she says) robbed the decade of its innocence. “Britain would be a different place from then on: unquiet, haunted.” Into this unquiet space comes Alison, a friend of Rachel, the two of them staying with Rachel’s grandparents while their mums are on holiday together and their fledgling friendship starts as it largely goes on – falling in and falling out, thick as thieves one minute, at each other’s throats the next. We follow Rachel – as she goes to Oxford, as she takes up the role of a tutor to the children of a mega-wealthy tax avoider – and Alison – looking to make her name as an artist – and eventually taking in Alison’s mum, a one-hit wonder looking for a second big break before being drafted into Coe’s articulation of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Rachel’s tutor Laura and two policemen – Nathan Pillbeam and a Detective Inspector Capes – on the trail of a serial killer who feels stand-up comedians need to be wiped out for making us laugh at the terribleness of the world.
All of which might make Number 11 sound somewhat scattershot, and it is, in a sense – in that, Coe’s targets are modern targets, targets we see in the world today, that co-exist alongside one another and, yes, comment upon one another in the sense that they form part of the world we all live in; but it’s also tight, elegant, sophisticated, thoughtful and challenging. We say challenging because the reader does strive to make connections beyond the narrative connections themselves (we’d go as far to say that the book positively encourages them, even when connections may be elusive, but that suggests to us that this is a book that possibly warrants re-reading, directly alongside What a Carve Up! itself). Yes, this is Coe in fine satirical form, and the reader feels flattered to be in the company of such a fine mind, even if certain ambiguities (such as the huge spiders that dominate the end of the book – are they real, not real, the product of a damaged mind, the strange, demonic alter ego of an immigrant dogwalker?) are left all ambiguous at the climax.
Number 11 also serves to make us feel like we’ve done a terrible injustice to The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim – what did we miss when we read that book, what signs flashed by us that we didn’t pick up on, what insensitivity did we embrace when we sought to condemn? Jonathan Coe is a fine, fine writer, and he deserves a fine reader too. Did we drop the ball on our review of that book? Number 11 makes us think so. Certainly when we look back over Coe’s career, from The Accidental Woman through The House of Sleep and, most recently, Expo 58, we see a writer whose books we religiously read within weeks of their release, a writer we always read, whose books never pass us by, a writer whose words we look forward to, a writer whose books we recommend more often than not. Number 11 serves as a reminder: Jonathan Coe is one of those writers more people should read, one of the good guys, someone whose mind is acute, whose heart is in the right place and whose ability to craft an entertaining read is right up there with the best of them.
Any Cop?: Massive cop, tremendous cop, all kinds of cop. We liked it a whole lot and we think you will too.