It’s 2016. We’ve got an American election coming up between a convicted felon and a lunatic of a failed businessman. In the UK, a wholly unelected leader has just taken control of the government which must now negotiate an exit from the EU, the result of a referendum that was only promised to placate members of the far right. The opposition party tears itself apart for no justifiable reason, whilst the newspapers spin everything exactly the opposite way to how it really is. Terrorism, mass shootings, and economic woes dominate the headlines, and seem to be becoming more frequent with each passing day, much to the horror and bafflement of all. At times like these, you just need to escape into a good old comedy and, as much as Jonathon Coe’s What A Carve Up! certainly meets that requirement, I can’t say it did much to take my mind off these issues…
It’s the 1980s and the Winshaws, a wealthy collection of siblings from Yorkshire, have their greedy hands in all parts of the establishment: Henry’s using politics to advance the aims of anyone but the people; Hilary is one of the most vitriolic, lying columnists out there; Roddy may be an expert on the female form but it informs his art-dealing in entirely the wrong way; Dorothy’s farm puts most horror movies to shame; Thomas is making millions in stocks and shares whilst the public suffer the consequences; and Mark specialises in defence – that is, of any nation, faction or militia who would like to buy his weapons.
But, as the family rape society for their own profit, all is not well. Author Michael Owen, has been enlisted by their mad Aunt Tabitha to write the family biography: and during his research he’s come to learn a lot about both the dealings of the Winshaw family, and about himself. Now events are moving inexorably towards the one available conclusion: will the Winshaw’s finally get their comeuppance?
It’s hard to define What A Carve Up!. Coe utilises diaries, letters, transcripts of TV interviews, excerpts from newspapers, novelised filler (within the confines of the novel itself, I mean – hoorah for metafiction!) and much more to familiarise us with the horrible Winshaws. At times it can be extraordinarily funny – the chapter on Henry Winshaw especially, and at other times, such as in Dorothy’s introduction, it threatens to put you off your lunch entirely. It’s reminiscent of the sort of humour in Heller’s Catch-22: completely absurd and stereotyped, but so self-aware that you can’t help but let out an involuntary snort. But it still retains depth, nuance and development in spades, slowly revealing the intricate ways in which its protagonist’s life intersects repeatedly with that of the various Winshaws, before descending into another orgy of farce and insanity.
It’s an undeniably witty and gripping work of political satire which dips into drama, tragedy, film criticism, mystery and much more over a timeline of decades. At times it can get a little too silly, or too bogged down in itself, but ultimately these moments of over-indulgence are entirely forgivable when considered in their full context. And regardless, the novel’s concluding volume more than makes up for the sins of its characters…
In What A Carve Up!, Coe has created a work that stands up as a bastion of comic writing: a biting satire of the dreadful politics of the 1980s that balances its absurdity and cynicism with fully-fledged characters and real emotion. It’s by no means a perfect work, but it’s flaws never prove to be a hindrance to its success. More worryingly, What A Carve Up! remains just as relevant today as it did when it was published in 1994, and as necessary a critique of the greed and cruelty of our country now, as it is of the 1980s.