The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

Taken from Wikipedia:

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is the ninth novel by British author Jonathan Coe, first published in the UK on 27 May 2010. It has a picaresque plot, told by the title character in the first person as he journeys first from Australia to his home in Watford, England and then on a promotional race for a toothbrush manufacturer to a remote chemist in the Shetland Islands. The story includes narratives written by other characters that greatly impact on Maxwell Sim, who is also preoccupied and influenced by the life and death of yachtsman Donald Crowhurst.

The book examines identity and isolation, exploring the paradox of loneliness experienced at a time when technology makes connections with other humans easier than ever.

In The Independent Robert Epstein commented “it takes real panache to write with such flowing comedic ease; his pacing throughout is superb and delivers realistic dialogue and, hence, believable characters”. Writing in The Observer the critic Jeremy Paxman wrote that Coe had “noticed something interesting about modern Britain, and fashioned an engaging parable from it”

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  1. malcolmbbc

     /  December 9, 2011

    Coe must be a favourite of the Guardian, as there seem to be lots of reviews popping up on Google. Thought that the following might be of interest:

    The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim has the usual supply of comic set pieces, but also has an audacious conclusion that, by means of an authorial appearance, “pulls the rug from under the reader”, in Coe’s words – and which is in some ways a return to the experimentalism of his first novel. His American publishers didn’t like it, and it’s proved divisive among early readers and reviewers. “I don’t see the last chapter as being anything other than making explicit what the reader, the writer and the characters go through when a book comes to an end anyway,” Coe reflects. “A train of thought that started with my work on the BS Johnson biography was how much we ask from literature, and can it deliver . . . What I’m doing is gesturing explicitly towards the real world out there and saying: ‘this is fiction, that’s real life, don’t get the two confused.'”

  2. Jeanette Winterson was one of those embroiled in the Booker kerfuffle. A brave woman to stick her head above the parapet, she drew some critical fire, but much of what she said made sense to me. While refraining from deriding ‘readability’ she makes a strong case for literary qualities.

    There are plenty of entertaining reads that are part of the enjoyment of life. That doesn’t make them literature. There is a simple test: “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?”

    Subject matter is not the point. It might be socially relevant, or it might not. It might be historical, science fiction, a love story, a crime novel, a meditation in fragments. There is no point judging a novel by its subject matter; what is in vogue now will be out of date soon. Nobody reads Jane Austen because we want her advice on marriage. And we don’t care that she lived right through the Napoleonic wars and never mentioned them once. Who cares about the Napoleonic wars now?

    Novels that last are language-based novels – the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power – forget it.

    Winterson is equating literature with art, language the medium. It isn’t the subject of a painting (or novel) which leads me to marvel. It is the creative act which transcends straight reproduction.

  3. moirabbc

     /  November 29, 2011

    After the meeting, I was at a loss to understand such a viscerally negative response to this book from a few people. I was reminded of the controversy over the Booker judges, stating they would be looking for criteria such as readability and whether this makes a book less ‘literary’ We certainly would not want a book of great merit being overlooked because it lacks readability but sometimes I feel there is a tendency to dismiss a book largely because it is readable.
    I was disappointed that we did not discuss some of the themes of this book, especially in the present social climate. Obviously, I share in the responsibility for this.
    I like intellectual challenge but not just for its own sake like a zoo animal having to artificially forage for my food. I also appreciate passion and clarity. For me, the book is very engaging emotionally, politically and comically. It is a very humane novel if that word has any positive meaning left.
    I do agree with Michele that the ending was somewhat cruel as I was hoping Maxwell was finding himself. I’m not convinced that the ending reveals that Coe is Maxwell Sim/Donald Crowhurst. Isn’t it more to the point that we all share in the terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim?
    A few days after the meeting this article appeared and it expresses some of my present feelings about reading.

  4. michelebbc

     /  November 25, 2011

    I quite enjoyed this book and it lead me to find out more about Donald Crowhurst who I’d never heard of, and watch a brilliant documentary film ‘Deep Water’ that has been made about his voyage.

    I must admit I was slightly miffed by the ending. To me a good novel is one that draws you in and makes you believe and sympathise with the characters and to have the author suddenly pop up at the end to explain to Maxwell how he constructed the novel was a disappointment for me – it felt a bit like one of thos warner brother cartoons in which the artist suddently rubs out bugs bunny if anyone remembers those! I wanted to rub out the author and be left with some sort of sense of resolution for Maxwell which is what everything had been building up to.

  5. malcolmbbc

     /  November 17, 2011

    PS. “picaresque”? (see Wikipedia extract). Not sure… definitions seem to refer to a “rogueish” hero. Not Maxwell, surely?

    • I thought ‘picaresque’ was an odd choice… Don Quixote, picaresque. Maxwell Sim, not so much.

  6. malcolmbbc

     /  November 17, 2011

    A book that – whilst dealing with various, serious topics (isolation, madness, depression etc) – is clearly written in a comic style. This book had some similarities with Reggie Perrin (as the author seems to acknowledge) – occasionally raging against the world, but in a broad and none too subtle way. Richard suggested at the meeting that this leads us to treat the messages less seriously, whilst Sarah and others criticised the fact that messages were all too obviously signposted.

    The tale reads a bit like a “road movie” – Maxwell drives from place to place meeting various people at each point, and uncovering a new story at each point. Which is pehaps a bit disjointed and/or formulaic. The writing style is also generally easy to read and the variation of stories and ideas should provide something of interest. Most (all)? of us also enjoyed the humour too.

    If you want a book with lots of complex layers that you have to unpick and decode, then this probably won’t be for you. However, if you want something that looks at some modern and eternal issues in a humorous fashion, then you’ll probably find something that you like here.

    As to the ending. I think it is perhaps no more than Coe saying something about his inspirations in a rather more inventive way than most acknowledgements. But then, I do generally read things literally and go for the simplest explanation!

  7. I can not say that I either regret or recant my earlier and not very generous comments on Maxwell Sim but in light of Moira’s remarks at the book chat meeting, w/r/t Jonathan Coe’s compassionate approach to his characters, I might be inclined to temper my faint praise with a little more appreciation. Compassion is a quality I value in a writer and although Maxwell Sim didn’t grip my interest in a stranglehold it is far from a repellent novel.

    For a novel which I couldn’t wait to finish (not in a good way) it is still occupying my thoughts to an annoying extent. The ending in particular has exercised my mental agility (unsuccessfully.) I still cannot find a good reason for Coe’s sudden metafictional outburst. I had not considered, as Malcolm did, that the writer character who reveals himself at the end is actually a representation of Coe. Checking out Coe’s biog the details he provides are an exact fit, but so what? The ending now has to cater for the both the informed and the uninformed and it doesn’t seem to add a lot to the novel either way.

    Post-modernism often looks gimmicky to me and I am taken by the pertinence of this remark made by James Wood with respect to Saramago’s use of the metafictional device:

    The question of this novel, and of much of Saramago’s work, is not the trivial ‘metafictional’ game-playing of ‘Does Ricardo Reis exist?’ It is the much more poignant question, ‘Do we exist if we refuse to relate to anyone?’

    By this rationale, at the moment of validation, Sim has his existence stripped from him; deepening my impression of a novel in conflict with its own aims.

    Jo’s recommendation, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities looks interesting. A future Book Chat read?


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