The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

Here’s a link to my review at Mostly Fiction of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe. I came across Coe’s name in a collection of short stories, and so I was interested to try a novel. I really liked this book but was disappointed in the ending, and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. But I liked the novel enough to try another Coe at some point. Suggestions welcome.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a very modern novel, and by that I mean that it focuses on the meaning of relationships in the internet age. The novel’s protagonist, lonely, under-employed Max doesn’t really have a clue about relationships, and at one point he even creates a fictional internet identity in order to maintain a covert correspondence with his ex-wife. This is a novel that covers a number of big issues extremely well while still maintaining a lightly humorous tone. Those issues include relationships, loneliness, the changing face of Britain, privacy in the internet age, and outsourcing. As Max embarks on a trip to the Hebrides to promote toothbrushes, he finds himself questioning some key events from his past, and author Coe very cleverly weaves in the true story of Donald Crowhurst.  In isolation, Max begins to compare his road trip with Crowhurst’s fictional voyage around the world.  

I’m not going to write a full review, but I am including one of my favourite quotes:

I was now driving past the old Longbridge factory. Or rather, I was driving now past the gaping hole in the landscape where the old Longbridge factory used to be. It was a weird experience: when you revisit the landscapes of your past, you expect to see maybe a few cosmetic changes, the odd new building here or there, the occasional lick of paint, but this was something else; an entire complex of factory buildings which used to dominate the whole neighbourhood, stretching over many square miles, throbbing with the noise of working machinery, alive with the figures of thousands of working men and women entering and leaving the buildings–all gone. Flattened, obliterated. Meanwhile, a big billboard erected in the midst of these swatches of urban emptiness informed us that, before too long, a phoenix would be rising from the ashes : a “major new development” of “exclusive residential units” and “retail outlets,” a utopian community where the only things people ever have to concern themselves with were eating, sleeping and shopping; there was no need to work anymore, apparently, none of that tiresome stuff about clocking in at factory gates in order to do anything as vulgar as making things. Had we all lost our wits in the last few years? Had we forgotten that prosperity has to be based on something solid and tangible? Even to someone like me, who had done nothing more than skim the papers and the news Web sites over the last couple of weeks, it was pretty obvious we were getting it badly wrong, that knocking down factories to put up shops wasn’t turning out to be such a great idea, that it wasn’t sensible to build an entire society on foundations of air.

Special thanks to Tom for pointing me in the direction of this entertaining book.

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28 Comments

Filed under Coe Jonathan, Fiction

28 responses to “The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

  1. Bonjour!
    I wanted to try one of Coe’s novels, I may start by this one.
    I like the quote you chose. Unfortunately, I know exactly what it is about. I come from a place where there used to be a lot of factories and there’s nothing worse to watch than a dead factory. And they seem to build malls and houses instead too. Or amusement parks.

  2. Jeannie Brandt-Lietzau

    Read Jonathan Coe’s “The Rain Before It Falls” Liked it very much, enough to order “The House of Sleep” which I haven’t read yet. Did not know that there was newer novel. Since I am familiar with The Rain Before It Falls and I was very impressed I can safely recommend the book. Unlike this book the protagonist is a woman…..you may want to consider that when making your choice.

  3. Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep is one of my Top 10. I love that book. I read The Rain Before it Falls but that left me completely unfazed. Not sure where to position this one.

  4. I have this on hand but haven’t read it yet. Just to lengthen your possibilities list, my favorite Coe’s are The Rotter’s Club and The Closed Circle (the latter picks up characters from the former a decade or so on). Both are social observation/satires of the Britain of the time (which this latest novel also seems to touch on), although I also came to very much appreciate the cast of characters. With the exception of The Rain Before It Falls (where I think Coe got tansfixed with a narrative gimmick that fell flat) I’ve liked all the Coe novels that I’ve read.

    • I’ll be interested to see what you make of this one, Kevin (the ending especially). I enjoyed the book enough to know I want to read more, so thanks for the suggestions.

  5. leroyhunter

    I’ve thought that I’d like The Rotter’s Club and sequel, but never really felt much urge to get them. I saw some of the TV adaptation of Rotter’s Club a few years ago.

    I was thinking “The Rain Before It Falls: isn’t that about the Hitler bomb plot? I didn’t know Coe wrote that.” Mixing it up with The Song Before It Is Sung.

    • Leroy: I looked at a plot summary and it says The Rain Before it Falls spans from 1930-1980. No mention of a Hitler bomb plot, so I’m hoping it’s not in the book.

  6. Jeannie Brandt-Lietzau

    Suppose I should say that “The Rain Before It Falls” was the first Coe novel that I read. Had no comparables. The book made my top ten of the year when I read it……now I am looking forward to reading some more of them……it sounds like they will even be better :>))

    • Jeannie: I can say that The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim hit me at the right moment. You know how it is–sometimes you are in the mood for a certain book and then you find it.

  7. Jeannie Brandt-Lietzau

    Guy,
    Often our current “life” situation affects how we feel about a particular book. I’ve put books aside cause I could not get into them, picked them up at a later date and wondered what it was that put me off in the first place. OR, I’ve reread a book and wondered what I liked about it.
    There are however, a few authors who never seem to disappoint. Haven’t read enough of Coe to put him into that catagory.

  8. Pingback: You know what I love about aeroplanes? They are the last place left to us where we can be totally inaccessible. « Bookaroundthecorner's Blog

  9. I’m a big fan of Coe and have read all his novels. This one has the usual mix of satire and social criticism, but I agree the ending is a big disappointment. I’ve reviewed it on my blog and it’s attracted a lot of hits, so Coe clearly has a strong fan base. The scene on the flight from Sydney to Singapore where he rattles on unawares to his neighbour and the craziness of the Scottish trip late in the book are highlights for me.

  10. I have several of Coe’s books on the shelf–another writer I’ve been meaning to get back to but haven’t for no good reason. This book gels well in my memory–well most of it except the ending, but all in all a delightful read full of many uncomfortable truths. Thanks for the comment.

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