The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim

A few years ago, the American novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay that addressed the "question of how to be alone". How, he wondered, is it possible to live a recognisably human life when money and culture impinge so relentlessly on the private sphere? His point was that the culture had done something to privacy, now that there are technologies available which allow us to live what we used to call our private lives in public. (It had also done something to fiction, Franzen thought, sapping its ability to keep itself separate, to escape the ravenous jaws of the "actuality".)

Jonathan Coe's latest novel is a variation on that same question, though it suggests a different answer. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is, among other things, an examination of what it is like to be alone in the early 21st century. It is a book about loneliness, in other words, and about the peculiar shapes into which technology can bend our experience of being solitary.

The narrator, Maxwell Sim ("like a Sim card"), is a salesman who has been abandoned by his wife and daughter, and whose only surviving relative, his father (once an aspiring poet), similarly lives on his own, but on the other side of the world, in Sydney. (The novel opens as Max is preparing to leave Australia, where he has been visiting his father for the first time in years.) Max has 70 "friends" on Facebook, none of whom he appears to be in contact with - his painstakingly crafted status updates invariably go unremarked. His only true friend is Trevor Paige, also a travelling salesman, who persuaded Max to buy a house in Watford many years earlier.

Watford, with its dismal shopping precinct and flyblown Yates's Wine Lodge where the two friends meet for post-work pints, serves throughout the novel as a synecdoche for Max's condition. It is the subject of the first great set piece in the book: a deranged, extended monologue by Max, aimed at his neighbour in Premium Economy on the flight home .

This speech, a pitch-perfect rendition of the manic garrulousness of the lonely, is a reminder that Coe has always been a virtuoso of voice. He is a master of the kind of distinctively English comedy that has its roots in Fielding and Sterne (Coe wrote his PhD thesis on Fielding). There are many memorable comic moments along the way here, not least the scene told in flashback where Max's wife, Caroline - who, like his father, has literary aspirations - suggests that he read the Rabbit novels (Max is not a great reader). He comes home from the bookshop not with Updike, but with a copy of Watership Down.

It is a business proposition from Trevor (who by now is beginning to tire of Watford) that provides the novel with its narrative motor and turns it into a form of picaresque: Max is inveigled into transporting a consignment of toothbrushes to the north of Scotland, a journey he makes in the company of "Emma", the name he gives to the voice on the satnav in the car he is given for the purpose.

Emma is not Max's sole obsession; he becomes fixated on the (true) story of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur yachtsman whose attempt to circumnavigate the globe in late 1968 precipitated his mental disintegration and ended in what is assumed to have been suicide. Crowhurst, who turns out to have been a tortured confidence man (he faked log entries during his last voyage), reminds the reader of no one so much as the novelist B S Johnson, of whom Coe wrote a magnificent biography, published in 2004, and who took his own life in an agony of literary self-recrimination in 1973. For all his addiction to formal innovation, Johnson was sceptical about the novel and its possibilities; he seemed to regard writing fiction as a fundamentally dishonest occupation. The surprising ending to this book suggests that Coe shares some of Johnson's misgivings.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim
Jonathan Coe
Viking, 352pp, £18.99

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil