Rise of a Scoundrel

Author Jonathan Coe.
Author Jonathan Coe. (Andre Metzger)
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, June 5, 2005


By Jonathan Coe. Knopf. 367 pp. $25

Jonathan Coe's new novel, The Closed Circle , is an immensely satisfying sequel to The Rotter's Club (2001). That book -- frequently funny, occasionally harrowing -- followed a group of anxious teenagers in Birmingham, England, through the 1970s. The world around them was torn by labor strikes, race riots and acts of terrorism, but those calamities could only occasionally break through their real worries: forgetting a bathing suit, passing a physics exam or getting a pretty girl into bed.

The Closed Circle picks up more than 20 years later, on the eve of the new millennium, when these friends and the world are all grown up. They dress better, listen to more sophisticated music and feel more concerned about wrinkles than acne, but they're still anxious, still worried about making the grade, still trying to figure out with whom they should sleep. Most of them have no better idea of who they are than they did in high school, but now they're afflicted with an aching sense of nostalgia, too. "There were some feelings that never faded," one of them realizes, "no matter how many years intervened, no matter how many friendships and marriages and relationships came and went in between."

This is, in many ways, a book about the function of nostalgia, about what's remembered and misremembered, which makes it a particularly easy sequel to enter. The characters constantly remind each other (and us) of events from their past, and at the back is a brief summary of The Rotter's Club "for those who have not read it, or who perhaps -- having read it -- have inexplicably forgotten it."

Coe is a witty writer with a talent for social satire that singes characters without burning away their humanity. He's particularly interested in the way people manage their personal lives in relation to the political climate, and so the plot of The Closed Circle constantly runs beyond its fictional edges into the pages of contemporary history. Too many novelists avoid this kind of topicality, as though they're creating sitcoms and desperate to avoid dating themselves in syndication. But Coe writes his characters right up to the moment, providing critical commentary -- on globalization and the war in Iraq, for instance -- that sounds almost as current as this week's op-ed pages.

The novel opens with Claire Newman's return home after six years in Italy and a failed relationship that makes her feel as if she's made no progress in her life at all. The time away has also given her a fresh perspective on Birmingham, and it's not reassuring: "My first impression," she writes to her dead sister in a long-running journal, "is that there are vast numbers of people who don't work in this city any more, in the sense of making things or selling things. All that seems to be considered rather old-fashioned. Instead, people meet , and they talk . And when they're not meeting or talking in person, they're usually talking on their phones, and what they're usually talking about is an arrangement to meet ." What's more alarming to her, though, is the mental climate: "Underneath is something else altogether -- a terrible, seething frustration."

As the novel moves through the interconnected stories of these old high school friends, different shades of that frustration emerge. Benjamin Trotter maintains a childless, passionless marriage while toiling away as an accountant, but he's still pining for a long-lost teenage sweetheart and pounding away on a multimedia magnum opus that will never see the light of publication. "The aura of failure, of disappointment, which he could feel clinging to him," is constantly renewed by the boundless success of his good-looking younger brother, Paul, a rising star in the Labour Party "who seems to live within an absolutely impermeable bubble of self-absorption."

Media-hungry Paul is surely Coe's most brilliant satirical creation; he's the epitome of the modern conservative disguised as a liberal, publicly noncommittal and vacuous but privately devoted to dismantling government for the profit of a brave, new oligarchy. (He forms a secret think tank called "The Closed Circle" to formulate "the most radical and far-reaching ideas.") When he's not busy selling off inefficient government property or cutting bloated social services, Paul is wooing a troubled young graduate student who's also the object of his brother's futile fantasies. In addition to being gorgeous, she introduces Paul to a wildly useful principle of deconstruction: "Irony is very modern," she tells him, "Very now . You see -- you don't have to make it clear exactly what you mean any more. In fact, you don't even have to mean what you say, really. That's the beauty of it."

Despite his best efforts, Paul quickly finds himself confronted with domestic and international crises that demand making his positions clear, and his old schoolmate Doug Anderton, now a successful journalist, is determined to pin him down. Choose, Doug insists, between your wife and your mistress, between saving the local auto plant and pleasing your cronies, between negotiating a rational peace and following President Bush into an inferno of retribution. Ultimately, Paul makes his choices as he always has, in a circle closed to anything but his own interests, forcing others -- his wife, his constituents, the citizens of Iraq -- to pay the awful price.

At the end of the novel, as Claire looks back at the scrambled paths of her old friends and relatives, she wonders, "What would happen if you tried to explain all those deaths, all those messed-up lives, tried to trace those events back to the source? Would you go mad? I mean, is it a mad thing to try and do, or is it really the only sane thing to try and do?" In some ways, that must be the question any good novelist confronts. There is a kind of madness in Coe's relentless pursuit of causality, of the connections between our decisions and their effects. But, as Claire suggests, looking for them is really the only sane thing to do if we hope to resist the nagging temptation to draw a circle around our interests, our desires, our lives. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

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