Thursday, June 21, 2007

Coe dependent

I'm only halfway through Jonathan Coe wonderful novel The Rotters' Club but I feel the urge to post about it. The book, which is set in 1970s Birmingham, is so funny that I find myself laughing out loud—one of the teenage characters writes a spot-on review of Tales of Topographic Ocean for instance, and a dinner party drenched in a horrific-sounding cheap wine called Blue Nun is described with deadly accuracy.

But like many English filmmakers, Coe is at his best on class and sexual politics, especially since he's fully aware of the inconsistencies of lefties when it comes to gender issues (the portrayal of a philandering union steward is particularly good). The way he can mix moods, going from comic to pained in a sentence, is downright masterful.

The use of musical references is also impressive in that unlike in too many American novels, they are not used as either decorative props or lazy shorthand to describe characters. Instead, they're only one among the many elements that help shade personalities. One boy enjoys bombastic Yes-style prog; another, who seems to be the Coe stand-in, discovers English eccentrics like Henry Cow and the Canterbury-affiliated Hatfield & the North, whose 1975 album was titled…The Rotters' Club (Coe actually wrote an affectionate article about that hairy scene last year.) A third embraces punk (his trip down to the London office of NME, where he gawks at the cubicle shared by Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill, is a hoot). But Coe goes further—when that third boy, Doug, serendipitously attends an early Clash gig, the revelation isn't so much the feverish pogoing but his meeting with a posh girl who introduces him, a 16-year-old Brummie "prole," to the delights of upper-class life.

While I'm tearing through the book, I also don't want it to end. Fortunately there's more in store, since in 2004 Coe published a sequel, The Closed Circle, taking place in the Blair years.

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