The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim
by Jonathan Coe
Viking RRP£12.99, 344 pages
Ten years ago we would have known Maxwell Sim, the protagonist of Jonathan Coe’s ninth work of fiction, as Mondeo Man. Five years or so ago, he would have been Fifty Quid Bloke.
These days Max – though still recognisable by his Lacoste shirt, his Hugo Boss jeans and his recently vacated position as the “after-sales customer liaison officer for a department store in central London” – is counting his Facebook friends, driving a Prius and selling organic, wooden-handled toothbrushes. How times have changed.
But in some ways, they’ve stayed the same, because Max is also that suffering hero of contemporary fiction, Midlife Crisis Guy. His wife has gone off to make something of herself up north after suffering an epiphany on Mumsnet; one of Max’s most furtive secrets is that he keeps tabs on her and his daughter in the online guise of SouthCoastLizzie, a single mum from Brighton.
Since he is “quite partial to Watford and more than partial actually … quite fond of Watford, you know”, he’s stayed there. But most of what you need to know about Max is summed up by his thesis that motorway service stations are “a perfect microcosm of how a well-functioning western society should operate”.
By now the only mail he gets is junk mail, the only e-mail he receives is penis enlargement spam and the only conversation he has is with strangers in transit, one of whom suffers a heart attack and dies without interrupting Max’s desolate monologue.
Enter his friend Trevor, with a plan: Max should come and work for Guest Toothbrushes, a start-up hoping to corner the market in sustainable toothcare. To promote No 9 in its Interproximal range and fulfil its slogan, “We Reach Furthest”, Max is persuaded to hop aboard one of the Guest fleet of Priuses, drive to a remote settlement in the Shetland Isles and try to fly the flag of dental hygeine at the UK’s furthest northern point.
Along the way he pays calls on his estranged wife, his estranged best friend’s parents, his estranged father’s bolthole in Lichfield and a childhood sweetheart (whom he soon estranges again). Each stop delivers surprises that will jolt him ever further out of his middle-aged, middle-class, middle-England rut.
To make things worse, Max is becoming increasingly obsessed with the story of Donald Crowhurst, the amateur yachtsman who went mad and drowned while attempting to fake his solo circumnavigation of the world in 1969. The era of GPS, of course, makes counterfeiting one’s route to the Shetlands impossible: but losing one’s mind, Max comes to realise, is still an option.
For most of the novel, Coe’s satirical eye is as dependable as ever. Max’s bustling Noughties solitude, a place of lonely humans marooned amid social networks, is as well caught as the 1970s world in The Rotter’s Club, the Thatcher-Major years in What a Carve Up! or the Blairite 1990s in The Closed Circle. The doggedly underdoggish narration is also a small triumph: it isn’t easy to make a boring narrator tell an interesting story, but Max’s relentless small-time honesty about his Prufrockian failures of nerve are largely engrossing.
At times, however, the mechanism creaks. Coe varies the pace by inserting documents written about Max by other characters in his story – a short fiction by his ex-wife, a journal entry by his father, a psychology report by a friend – not all of which exhibit enough variance in narrative voice to convince.
Events towards the end of the novel swing from the satirical to the implausibly farcical, and are crowned with a bit of authorial back-patting that will tax to the limit the reader’s tolerance for metafictional tomfoolery. Martin Amis’s 1980s trick of introducing the Author as a deus ex machina to wrap things up was questionable then and seems particularly hard to stomach now.
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim takes epigraphs from David Nobbs’s The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine, two other 20th-century classics of middle-aged male loneliness and quiet rebellion in whose tradition it clearly aspires to stand.
As a book this may not be as barbed or as wild as Coe’s earlier fiction, nor as freewheelingly eccentric as those works by Nobbs and Gray: but set aside those final seven pages and this is an amiably lunatic, occasionally moving journey into the unknown.