Date finished: November 26th 2015
Satire is a tightrope: get too silly and you’ve made an absurdist comedy; too serious and the satirical elements can wither away. Jonathan Coe is an accomplished tightrope walker.
Number 11 is less a novel than a series of loosely-related vignettes about a circle of characters critiquing various aspects of the current state of our nation. Coe tackles topics such as the exploitative media, the inequality gap, the relationship of Britain’s past and present, the treatment of minorities, the results of unfettered privilege and much more. It’s a timely step back observing the consequences of the pervasive neoliberal attitudes that have brought us to where we are today.
The main focus is on the character of Rachel, and a few others who, knowingly or not, influence the direction of her life. Coe takes us on a fly-on-the-wall journey around the giddy highs and lows of wealth and privilege; poverty and disadvantage; mad sanity and sane madness. It’s a satire of consequences as the impoverished and marginalised sit side-by-side with the wealthiest and most privileged, and each group effects the other in strange and unexpected ways.
Coe has many important and incisive insights to make about the direction our nation is heading in. Certain passages excel at making their point (particularly the rather harrowing take on reality TV, and the riveting final episode). His characterisation is also enjoyable, shifting between tangible people who feel alive (particularly true of protagonist, Rachel) and absurd parody.
However, sometimes it all feels a little too passive, like a muzzled rottweiler: unable to bite and whose barks are a bit muffled too. Some of the chapters fall a little flat, their events only justified when utilised in other, better chapters. Coe can also be a touch moralising; at times it can feel like one is being beaten around the ears with a Tony Benn speech, whilst at others the novel tiptoes around its subject matter too allegorically to rouse the readers’ attentions.
But those faults are few and far between. Even when on his soapbox or getting a bit bogged down in plot machinations, Coe is still a very readable writer. At his worst he can be a bit boring, but at his best he epitomises great storytelling.
Number 11 is ultimately an enjoyable jumble sale of a novel, and a very necessary work, both a product of and a reaction to it’s era. There’s a lot of wisdom between the pages of this book. Wisdom that needs to find its way into our real world. And if that weren’t persuasion enough, there’s a collection of very satisfying stories too.