David Blackburn

A riot act

Jonathan Coe is surprised by his eminence. ‘I’m just a comic Agatha Christie,’ he says. Coe was at the Guardian last night in King’s Cross – the newspaper’s book club has been reading What A Carve Up, Coe’s satire of the Thatcher years.

Coe understands the book’s continued popularity and relevance. ‘The political mood has not changed in that time, arguably it’s got worse.’ He welcomes the book’s success; but regrets that society has not rejected the apostles of greed and laments that even the Labour party now dallies with the filthy rich.

Coe conceived of writing a political-satire-cum-social-panorama in the mid-eighties, but took several years to complete the project. What A Carve Up was finally published in 1994. Without meaning to give too much away, it is the story of the Winshaw clan, a family of unutterable rapacity. Each member represents a vice within the sphere of politics, culture, finance, arms dealing, food production and the media. Each in turn succumbs to a death that befits their respective sins.

The central character is Michael Owen, a struggling novelist contracted to write a history of the family. He is a pathetic beacon of empathy, too ineffectual and paranoid to be virtuous in the heroic sense. Michael’s decency is subsumed by the Winshaws’ all conquering philosophy. As Coe put it, ‘Winshawism triumphs despite the eradication of the family’.    

Owen is connected to the Winshaws by dint of his father being killed in a Lancaster bomber with Godfrey Winshaw during the war. This is one of many plot devices that have led critics to pooh-pooh Coe’s approach to narrative as being overly reliant on coincidence. Coe contests this, arguing that his ‘tricksy’ book wouldn’t work without artifice.

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