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Jonathan Coe: The Closed Circle

There is always a question that when an author resurrects an old book and writes a follow-up, he is running out of ideas. This book is not only The Rotters’ Club twenty years on but also starts out to do to the Blair government what What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy) did to the Thatcher government. Sadly, as I said, it starts out, but it never finishes, reverting full time to The Rotters’ Club. Indeed, Coe even helpfully provides a summary of The Rotters’ Club at the back in case you never read it or had forgotten it.

The Rotters’ Club left four unsolved mysteries or, rather, one unsolved mystery and three whose solution was not fully satisfactory. A significant part of this book is about solving those mysteries, which at least gives the impression that Coe did intend to come back to the story. The mysteries are as follows:

What happened to Miriam Newman, who suddenly and inexplicably disappeared? Her sister, Claire, and, to a lesser extent, her nephew, Patrick do finally solve it.
Who doped Steve Richards so that he failed his physics exam? We had an obvious candidate but…
Ben Trotter, more or less the hero of both novels, had left his swimming trunks on the back seat of his father’s car. At his school, there was a rule that if you arrived for swimming class sans trunks, you had to swim nude, the ultimate humiliation. Ben made a deal with a God that if he got some trunks, he would become a Christian. He did and he did. A significant part of Ben’s subsequent life is affected by this decision, including his marriage. During this book, he finds out that there was no miracle.
The other key event that affected Ben and his subsequent life was his love for Cicely. He lusted after her through school and finally consummated his love at the end of school, only for her to disappear to America, apparently to join her Lesbian lover. Why? All is – eventually – revealed.

To Coe’s credit, the main characters do not turn out entirely as expected. Ben, the great musician and great novelist, turns out to be an accountant, a not very good husband and a troubled man. Two of the characters become journalists. Others have varying careers and lives. Of particular note is Ben’s brother, Paul, who was not a nice person in The Rotters’ Club and, as a Blairite MP in this book, is really not a nice person. He is devoid of humour, cheats on his wife, kisses up to Tony and shows many of the right-wing tendencies his dear leader has shown. Indeed, it is with him that Coe has his What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy) moment. Paul, with a group of others, sets up a group called The Closed Circle (just one of the several meanings of this term in the book), which seems to be the sort of inner cabal whose main intent is to screw the workers to the benefit of the bosses and politicians that we saw in What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). Just when he gets going on this, Coe drops it and seems more intent on winning the Bad Sex in Fiction prize than focusing on Paul’s political foibles. How Paul performs oral sex on his lover may be fascinating to some but, frankly, I would have been much more interested in seeing the political conspiracies of Blair cronies.

Only connect!, E M Forster‘s famous dictum, seems to be Coe’s plan here. He makes a great point of showing the connections between both the different characters and between the characters and what is happening in the world. Claire Newman (who is improbably having a chat in Italy with her ex-husband) makes the point that much of what happened to certain individuals is entirely connected to major events, specifically the Irish pub bombing that figures in The Rotters’ Club, that led to the death of Ben’s sister’s fiancée. But, as in Thomas Pynchon, characters inexplicably bump into one another in improbable places – a French monastery or a café in Berlin, for example. Cultural references are made that have different meanings for different characters, such as the music of Vaughan Williams or Saint Benedict who is referred to by his French name of Saint Benoit. Of course, these connections are often what make novels interesting and they certainly do in this case.

This is, after all I have said above, a fine (though not great) novel. It is witty, cleverly done and keeps you guessing, at least in some cases. Apart from the failure to pursue the Blair bashing that it seemed to start out with, its main failure seems to be an almost relentless desire to tie up all loose ends. The example of Claire and Philip in Italy, mentioned above, where both seem to be there solely so that both can tell the other what they each know, is a case in point. As a result, I think Coe loses an opportunity to tell an even better tale.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Viking