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Jonathan Coe: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim

Jonathan Coe keeps churning them out but, with each new one, you wonder if he is starting to lose his touch. This one certainly is not a bad book and, in places, it is very funny indeed but it does not entirely convince. And it has a totally feeble and corny ending. But, in its favour, it dissects modern England, as Coe is wont to do, and creates fascinating character in the title character, a man who really is a total loser.

Indeed, when we first meet Mr. Sim, it is in a newspaper report, telling how he has been found in a car dead drunk with two empty whiskey bottles in the car, naked and with a box containing 400 toothbrushes and another box holding postcards from the Far East. Much of the novel is explaining how he got there. When we first meet him (excluding the newspaper report), he is returning from Australia, where he has been to see his father. His wife has recently left him, taking their daughter. As a result he has a breakdown and temporarily left his job as a customer service staff manager in a department store (though he has a more grandiose title). He lives alone and has only one friend – Trevor – having alienated the other – Chris (by apparently beating up Chris’ young son, though episode is explained in more detail late in the novel). He does have a large number of Facebook friends but they don’t really have much to do with him. His wife had left him a ticket to Australia as a leaving present and this is how and why he goes to Australia. But he had never had a good relationship with his father and nothing much has changed.

Coe tells the story in a mix of first-person narration and various documents Sim comes across, which fill in some of the gaps, such as the story of Donald Crowhurst, a story written by his estranged wife and a psychological self-analysis by Chris’ sister, whom Sim had had a crush on in his youth and whom he meets again during the course of the novel. Crowhurst is key for Sim and the novel. Sim saw Crowhurst set off on his journey from Teignmouth and followed his journey in the press, till the hoax was revealed. The Crowhurst story will being bring Sim close to both Poppy and her uncle Clive, both of whom have an influence on Sim during the novel. Finally, Sim identifies with Crowhurst as a loser, though we have long made the connection before Sim does.

Pretty well everything Sim does turns our badly – from his reconciliation with his father, to his attempt to pick up women, to his career. Coe documents these failures in some detail, and some of them, frankly, are very funny indeed. Indeed, the strength of this novel may well be some of the individual episodes rather than the novel as a whole. But it is not all laughs. Sim does find out a somewhat dirty family secret and though Coe, like most good writers, is sympathetic to his main character, despite his plight, we cannot help but feel that Sim the loser is really a loser too far. Where this novel seems to really lose its thread is the very forced and unsatisfactory ending. But, as I said, it is not a bad novel by any means and confirms that Coe has a strong sense of the comic.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Viking