In the final moments of “The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim,” Jonathan Coe walks into his own novel, and the narrator asks him, “Should I have heard of you?”
It’s a question most Americans could ask this British author. Although Coe has written nine novels and attracts respectable attention in London, he remains stubbornly obscure in the United States. Nothing about his new novel will change that.
It’s a shame, because Coe has published some superb contemporary satire, and in such novels as “The Rotters’ Club” and “The Closed Circle,” he describes the lonely plight of modern life in complicated plots woven right through the day’s headlines.
“The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim” would seem to offer the same riches. His protagonist is a woebegone, inept man, “the most unnecessary person ever born.” On Valentine’s Day 2009, Max tells us, “I was probably feeling more alone than I had ever felt in my life,” a treacly whine made more distasteful by the fact that we’ve all mumbled it to ourselves. “We mill around every day,” he goes on, “we rush here and there, we come within inches of touching each other, but very little real contact goes on.” A customer-service worker on disability leave for depression, Max almost dares us to pity him. “My passing wouldn’t send out many ripples,” he says. “Would any of my Facebook friends really notice? I doubted it. I was alone in the world, now, terribly alone.”
The more he says about his isolation, the more we understand why. Coe is so good at Max’s plaintive voice that the cliches fall from the branches of his sentences like rotten fruit. Early in the novel, Max literally bores a man to death. Only a brilliant author could make this long-winded whimper sound so wholly real.
Coe wrote his doctoral thesis on Henry Fielding, and that influence shows in this picaresque novel about a hapless dullard blowing around the world trying to make sense of himself. A whiff of absurdity lingers on the plot, but Max is always so earnest that you have to remind yourself how ridiculous his adventures are. Most of the story is powered by his participation in a marketing scheme that involves driving across England in a Toyota Prius to tout the benefits of an environmentally friendly toothbrush. “The journey. The voyage of discovery,” his new boss tells him. “Think of the Odyssey. Think of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Think of Lord of the Rings.” But that’s no help for poor Max. “I hadn’t read the Odyssey or Lord of the Rings,” he thinks, “or even seen the film, and King Arthur and the Holy Grail made me think of Monty Python.”
Easily distracted from his marketing mission, Max stops to visit various people from his past, and each old friend makes a gentle effort to lead him toward a better understanding of his thwarted life. But his only passionate connection is with strangers he fantasizes about meeting — or the female voice of his GPS. (“I had to admire the way that even as she gave contradictory pieces of advice and recalculated furiously, her tone remained completely unflappable. What a woman.”)
All this sounds promising, and there are other evocative moments about the financial crisis, the enervating effects of modern travel, the alienating influence of social media, the vacuity of green corporate advertising, the odiousness of celebrity culture and the corrosive envy of suburban life. But the poignant elements of poor Max’s journey of self-discovery are frequently overwhelmed by Coe’s postmodern tics, the kind of cerebral gags one might tolerate from a much younger writer. We’re constantly being dragged into other texts — his ex-wife’s short story, news accounts of an amateur sailor from 1969, an old friend’s college paper, his father’s memoir. These ungainly detours make for the kind of super-clever intertextuality that a half-dozen graduate students will find incredibly rich.
Worse, the novel’s satire smells stale. People spend more time clicking away on their BlackBerrys than they do talking with each other in person?! Facebook friends don’t offer the same kind of connection as real companions?! OMG! How sharp all this would have been way back in 2009, but now, especially after the gonzo comedy of Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,” such commentary sounds as fast and fun as dial-up Internet access.
The same goes for that cute authorial appearance at the end, when Coe trudges onto the scene, dispenses with poor Max and shuts the story down. What purpose does such self-conscious artifice serve, except to let us know that we’re fools for craving the illusion of fiction? And, please, isn’t it rather late to be using homosexuality as a story’s shocking revelation?
Coe once said that “the spectacle of so many writers — myself included — continuing to work within a form that has patently played itself out strikes me as rather funny.” But there are plenty of writers — including Jonathan Coe — who have proven that this old form still has more life in it than “The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.”
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. He reviews books every Wednesday.
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim
. By Jonathan Coe.
Knopf. 311 pp. $26.95.