Expo 58, by Jonathan Coe, Viking, RRP£16.99, 288 pages
There can be no other writer in the English language – or in any other language come to that – who would plot a novel with a corn plaster at its emotional heart. Only Jonathan Coe would dare take something so comically prosaic and make it the basis of a misunderstanding that poisons a marriage.
Expo 58 is Coe at his funny-serious best, offering his idiosyncratic mixture of slapstick and profundity in a love-and-spies story set at the height of the cold war. It’s a fashionable backdrop for British novelists, recently chosen by Ian McEwan; yet while McEwan’s novel Sweet Tooth (2012) was all literary twists, Expo 58 is what Coe is so good at providing: pure enjoyment. Or rather, it’s awfully decent, old chap. Good Lord, man, it’s top-notch.
The setting is the 11th World’s Fair in Belgium, and Britain is working out how best to demonstrate the essence of Britishness. The decision has been made to have a pub called the Britannia as the centrepiece of its pavilion and Thomas Foley – a suburban copywriter at the Central Office of Information who spends his life writing brochures advising people how to cross roads – has been picked as the right fellow to run it.
According to its publishers, Expo 58 is an Ealing-Comedy-meets-Hitchcock-thriller – which makes one wonder if they’ve ever seen any of the latter. Hitchcock’s films can terrify; Coe’s duo of spies in raincoats and a Russian who develops a strange love of Salt ’n’ Shake crisps wouldn’t scare anyone for a minute.
They don’t even scare Thomas, who is too dim to notice that anything odd is going on, and even when he does notice, too phlegmatic to respond. When a spy bundles him into a tiny VW Beetle and shows him a gun, his main concern is that his travelling companion is so fat that he has no room to take his coat off.
What Coe has actually written is Carry On-meets-history. The pub is a hideous modern construction designed to feel like a yacht club, with lifebuoys and models of ships as decoration. “Britain, after all, is a modern country,” Thomas explains to the Whitehall committee that has been arguing for horse brasses and overflowing tankards.
A spot of Googling confirms that the Britannia did exist, and looked exactly as Coe describes. Even more ludicrous – but just as true – are the cod historical Belgian village, “La Belgique Joyeuse”, the cutesy huts in which Congolese villagers are gawped at and the American pavilion with pretty women demonstrating Hoovers.
In the middle of this improbable scene is Thomas, delighted to have escaped the noose of wife and baby in Tooting and to be at loose on the Heysel plain. Dithery and emotionally repressed, Thomas is at war with his own idea of fair play, which he has neither the will to follow nor to jettison.
In him, Coe has once again created an unattractive character whose fate somehow begins to matter to us. The feat is not quite as impressive as in The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (2010), when we are made to care for a character so maddening that the act of caring ruins the pleasure of reading the book.
Caring for the handsome, unaware Thomas is made much easier by the fact that he shares the deliciously babyish sense of humour of his creator. Coe revels in the silliest jokes in a way that he hasn’t done since What a Carve Up! (1994). Then, the journalist hero is writing a book review and searching for the right word he hits on the erudite “brio”. Alas, the sentence that appears in the paper reads: “He lacks the necessary biro.”
Expo 58 almost reaches the same heights of silliness when Thomas reveals in a letter to his wife that the waitress in the Britannia “rejoices in the name of Shirley Knott. (Think on it for a while and you will see the pun.)” He goes on to tell her how the pub was paid a visit by the Fifth European Congress on Fluorisation and Prevention of Dental Decay, but that one delegate broke a tooth on the crust of a speciality pork pie and an emergency extraction had to be performed.
The genius of these jokes is that they are written in letters that are not funny at all. Their blithe lightness is cruelly oblivious to the unhappiness of his neglected wife; the gap between letters gets longer, the things not said get louder. Thighs are slapped and hearts bleed, all at the same time.
If Expo 58 works as a historically faithful, global comedy of manners, it works even better as a stand-off between duty and desire. Thomas’s thrilling escapades at the World’s Fair in Brussels alert him to a life that isn’t all boiled carrots and gripe water: the true tension in the book is less whether the Russians steal Britain’s secrets but whether he opts for the carrots or cuts loose in search of a more exciting life.
The conclusion is as sad as his jokes are uproarious: wisdom comes in the end to Thomas, but then it’s too late.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist and associate editor