Jonathan Coe has always been good at a comic “state of the nation” novel, as this sequel of sorts to his 1994 novel, What A Carve Up!, shows.
Connecting the two books is the same Winshaw family, whose tentacles reach into the arms trade, food production and the media.
Most were killed off in the earlier novel. But monsters never die and Number 11 features one loathsome survivor — a right wing columnist, bent on finding that mythical one-legged black lesbian welfare scrounger beloved of the hated “left-liberal establishment”.
And the joke is that she does exist, in the shape of the far from monstrous Alison. Her childhood friend Rachel’s unease at the suicide of David Kelly, victim of the media brouhaha around the sexed-up report that launched the Iraq war, sets the story going.
Coe’s comedy centres on the real monsters that haunt an unquiet Britain, those embodying the motto beneath a Winshaw family portrait hanging in Rachel’s Oxford college: “Freedom, Competition, Choice”.
Coe reduces this trinity to absurdity. The Winshaw prize, for example, is awarded to whatever is most competitive — content and value are irrelevant. Freedom and choice are similarly meaningless, making a mockery of work and creativity.
Alison’s mother, Val, a fading singer who once appeared on Top of the Pops and is now a precarious, part-time library worker, hopes that her appearance on a Get Me Out of Here reality show will lift her out of financial and personal insecurity. Her cruel fate is to be manipulated by the show’s selective editing and destroyed by social media.
Hankering for a lost cultural world becomes itself a destructive obsession. Such is the fate of Roger, an academic whose dogged tracking down of a film that enchanted him in his childhood leads to an absurdly bathetic death. Obsession with a lost world stands for something bigger — a past world in which welfare was secure.
Roger hated “choice”, we are told by his widow, Laura, Rachel’s tutor, who herself has adapted to the commodification of culture under the guidance of the aptly-named Lord Lucrum.
Obsession, in the form of repetition, is central to the novel. This is Coe’s eleventh novel, and number 11 is obviously a reference to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s residence. Val can avoid returning to her cold house after work by going round and round Birmingham on the number 11 circular bus route.
And from the depths of the basement, an eleventh storey excavated on her employer’s orders for the monetary hell of it, will creep something that forces Rachel to the perfectly sane conclusion that she is becoming insane — a paradox that drives this novel about the reality of monsters.
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say, enjoy the revenge of the quiet Romanian dog-walking immigrant who really is not what she seems — or is she?