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The loneliness of the long distance salesman

If only E. M. Forster hadn’t beaten him to it by exactly a century, Jonathan Coe could have coined the enigmatic phrase ‘only connect’ in this novel.

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim Jonathan Coe

Viking, pp.352, 18.99

If only E. M. Forster hadn’t beaten him to it by exactly a century, Jonathan Coe could have coined the enigmatic phrase ‘only connect’ in this novel.

If only E. M. Forster hadn’t beaten him to it by exactly a century, Jonathan Coe could have coined the enigmatic phrase ‘only connect’ in this novel. Maxwell Sim cannot connect at all. A depressed salesman approaching 50, he is adrift from his father, who moved to Australia 20 years ago, from his wife, an aspiring writer who left him to live in the Lake District, and from his daughter, who hardly speaks to him. He has 70 Facebook ‘friends’, but they are of course not real friends. Worst of all, he cannot connect with — or even like — himself, a failing pointed out by his wife before her departure. Unsurprisingly, he feels low, but we know that he will soon feel even lower: the novel opens with a newspaper article, set a few days in the future, concerning Max’s discovery in a car in Aberdeenshire, drunk, naked and hypothermic, with the boot tragicomically stuffed with 400 toothbrushes and a bin-liner full of postcards.

The questions, then, are how and why Max ends up in that absurd situation, and whether he will recover. The answer to the first question is that Max accepts an offer from his only friend, Trevor, to undertake some freelance work. His task is to travel to the Shetlands and deliver some toothbrushes, and to video-record his progress on the way: the trip, one of four being under- taken to the furthest edges of Britain, is a PR stunt by Trevor’s employer aimed at proving that its products ‘reach furthest’. Max drives off, planning to visit his father’s old flat in Lichfield and his estranged wife and daughter in Cumbria en route; these diversions, and another originally unplanned one, bring more trouble than Max had imagined.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim marks a return to satire for Jonathan Coe, after the hit-and-miss The Rain Before it Falls (2007). There are echoes of his best novel, What a Carve Up! (1994): both books are comedies narrated by a fragile loner who undertakes a project; in each there are deliberately unlikely twists, sub-plots and coincidences, which end up telling the narrator more and more about himself; and each is a State of England novel — the England of the 1980s in the earlier, and that of the 2000s in this one.

The country in this novel is, like Max, embarrassed about itself and keen to embrace comforting ubiquity: a neat symbol of this is the toasted panini, that recent lunchtime phenomenon, which Max bolts down in various faux-Italian franchises in service stations throughout Britain. Max likes chain restaurants and familiarity, because they help him to disappear into a comfort zone of routine; they help him to blend into the masses rather than face the awkward question of who he is.

This, and our foreknowledge of Max’s darkest hour in Aberdeenshire, should give a clue that there is more going on than Max is willing at first to admit. We eventually find out his full story: some of it is far-fetched, and most of it is as digressive as the shaggiest of shaggy-dog stories — a short review cannot adequately examine a plot encompassing dozens of characters, the story of the boating fraudster, Donald Crowhurst, a surprising memoir by Max’s father, and an appearance by an author rather like Jonathan Coe. Some of it doesn’t work; Max’s breakdown, when it comes, seems sudden and forced, and the conclusion takes the novel, and Max himself, in a direction which is interesting but not a hundred per cent plausible.

As a whole, though, it is enjoyable — not as scathing and weighty as What a Carve Up!, but at times wrenchingly perceptive about sadness. Coe writes at eye-level with Max, not from a height, which is something comic writers often fail to do. Max is silly, but Coe makes him more than a figure of ridicule.Instead, he understands him, shows us what it is to be ineloquent in company, to have bland tastes and a childlike need for sameness, to not be very good at things. Through that understanding he gives us witty and tender humanity, and reminds us that while the winners write the history, it is life’s losers, such as Max, who have the best stories.

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