Jonathan Coe, “The Closed Circle” (2004) – I very much enjoyed Jonathan Coe’s “What A Carve Up!” (published in the US as “The Winshaw Legacy” – I prefer the British title), his breakout novel, when I read it a few years back. I also remember liking “The Rotter’s Club,” his look back at life in Birmingham in the late seventies, right at the precipice of the Thatcher era, though I have to say I don’t remember it that well. It came in handy that this sequel, “The Closed Circle,” came with a brief synopsis of its predecessor.
Coe possesses an Old Labour sensibility and social conscience. If “The Rotter’s Club” presents life on the edge of Thatcherism, “The Closed Circle” takes the same characters into the ideology’s realization, when New Labour institutionalized Thatcherism-with-a-smile as the ruling ethos of Britain at the turn of the twenty-first century. The characters mostly managed to ride the wave of neoliberalism into professional jobs, as accountants, journalists, one of them is a member of Parliament, etc. This isn’t a story of working class devastation, even if plant closures and corporate abuse form an important part of the backdrop. It is a story of distinctly middle-class ennui.
It’s also a story about looking backwards. Benjamin, arguably the main character in the ensemble cast of “The Rotter’s Club,” is obsessed with a teenage fling he had in that book, twenty years later, and can’t move on, even though he’s married to someone else. Another character lives in the shadow of her sister, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, also in the first book. Characters gain fixations on figures from the school they all went to, and try to track them down. It’s understandable, given that “forward-looking” in Blair’s England seems to mean shallow platitudes covering over base greed and power-mongering, as is the case with Paul, who went from an annoying brat in “The Rotter’s Club” to an unprincipled New Labour MP in “The Closed Circle.”
I intermittently enjoyed reading “The Closed Circle,” but I don’t think it’s as strong as the others I’ve read of Coe’s work. In part, this is due to his choice of topics: gray middle-class Englanders with ennui tend to blend together more than younger adults do. The big surprise ending does indeed “close the circle” of a love mess that makes up one of the central plotlines of the novel, but in a coincidence-heavy way that summons up for me bad memories of Oscar-bait “we’re all connected” movies of the same period, like “Babel” and “Crash.” Coe has chops and his book is better than either of those movies, but the ending really didn’t do it for me. I’ll still keep my eye out for the sequel that came out recently. ***’