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The Closed Circle

Saturday, 28 February 2009

“Oh,” people said, “it’s not as good as The Rotters’ Club.”

It’s taken me two and a half years to get around to reading The Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe. It sat on the to be read bookcase since 2006 but every time my finger hovered near it, the comments I’d heard made me pass it over in favour of other books.I finally pulled it off the shelf a couple of weeks ago.

The Closed Circle
Jonathan Coe
(Viking, 2004 edition)

I think a problem may be that The Rotter’s Club conjured up such vivid impressions of a time when the majority of the audience was a child or teenager, and we read it before Life on Mars sent John Simm back to a regional city in the 1970s.

Some readers may have found the lack of a nostalgic veneer a reason to find it ‘less good’ but I actually found the loose structure and sudden sverves of narrative more of a problem.  Whereas The Rotter’s Club raises childhood/teenaged ghosts, The Closed Circle is a swipe at C21st British politics and, as such, seems less measured.  One character, Munir, suddenly appears in order to make some passing politic points – and broadly brushed ones at that – before vanishing again. Writing about contemporary events and projecting very slightly into the future is a risk, and it’s one I’m not sure pays off as it feels like the novel was dashed out to make political points rather than having the precision of the first book.

There’s also a quite odd decision to allude to some things without naming them that  is both distracting and annoying. So Paul Trotter appears on “a satircal news quiz programme” where he is against “a young comedian” and “the editor of a satirical paper”. This is quite obviously Have I Got News For You?. This coyness could be put down to an attempt not to make the novel so contemporary it dates itself out of relevance within a couple of years of publication, if it were not for the fact it it also very expressly set between 2000 and 2004 with clear references to events of the time (just as The Rotter’s Club alluded to real political events of the 70s). And it name-drops real bars and restaurants in London such as Rules and Gordon’s Wine Bar. The inconsistancy of this kept dropping me out of engaging with the story.

Overall,  it is not as good as The Rotter’s Club.

Then We Came to the End

Sunday, 25 January 2009

I have no idea why I read cube-lit. That wierd American sub-genre of contemporary fiction which is set in and revolves around working for a company.  I really enjoyed Microserfs, for example, in part because I recognised the work-geek stereotypes being presented. (Since then, there has been the IT Crowd which takes the Silicon Valley of Microserfs and dumps it in a British basement, making it a lot funnier.)

Then We Came to the End
Joshua Ferris
(Penguin, 2008)

I’m also a sucker for 3-for-2 offers, often ending up with one extra book I wasn’t desperate to own but which I thought was worth picking as the freebie. Then We Came to the End is such a book.  The cubes and offices are in an advertising agency going through a bout of layoffs as a downturn bites (based on the technology they use, I think it’s the dot-com bubble‘s burst). Given my enjoyment of ad agency settings (Mad Men, Murder Must Advertise etc) as well as cube-lit, it should be a winner.

I did enjoy it: the petty workplace habits are well-observed and there was a rather neat device for the ‘lit’ part of the ‘cube-lit’ tag. The novel is told in first person plural (‘we’*), which serves to make the reader complicit in the vile gang of characters’ activities. If they take against someone, the suggestion is that we, as readers, also do.  Of course, as readers we also see outside the cube’s walls – we can see that just because ‘we’ don’t like a guy it doesn’t mean that guy is actually unlikeable. We as readers become the silent complicit partners in the time-wasting, pettiness and bullying ‘we’ do: we become the person who sees the unfairness but doesn’t speak up and thus allows it to escalate.

One chapter in the middle breaks this, the only chapter to step outside the office environs, and moves to third person singular. Later, back in the first person plural, ‘we’ attend a book reading by a former colleague and he starts with the first line of that person-breaking middle chapter.

And yet, three weeks after I finished it, I can’t remember all the details. Despite being dragged into the fiction through that all-inclusive pronoun, I don’t recall the names of the characters. So I’d recommend it to most office workers as, like most cube-lit, you get the kick of recognition and it races along quite nicely.  A good commuting read.

*aside: in Who fandom, there is a nasty habit of calling fans ‘we’ and everyone else in the world ‘not-we’ – it’s taken from one of the more philosophical early 80s stories but manages to come over like the vile ‘we’ in this novel. Just saying.

The Rotter’s Club

Monday, 8 August 2005

The Rotter’s Club
Jonathan Coe

I’m never really sure how to tag a book like this. Coe uses a framing device of the story being told not by two of the protagonists reminising over shared experiences but two of their descendents, trying to imagine life in the world before they were born: the modern nostalgia not for real memories but for the idea of them. Yet the book is truly nostalgic in recalling not the rosy idealised past but the real brown and orange, mushrooms-as-exotic, 1970s. Despite the framing device, the narrative is left open but with the promise of a follow-up, The Closed Circle. I was assuming this was a little pomo joke – a promise of closure for those who require it – until I checked and it turns out the book does exist. I find that vaguely disappointing.


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