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31 May 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

Pulling the rug from under the reader

Jonathan Coe on the ending to his new novel.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

In my review of Jonathan Coe’s new novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, I made a connection between the surprising ending to the book and Coe’s long-standing interest in the fiction of B S Johnson, of whom he wrote an outstanding biography in 2004. I wrote:

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.

I was gratified, at the weekend, to see that (tentative) connection vindicated by Coe himself. In a profile by Paul Laity published in the Guardian, Coe explains why he pulls the rug from under the reader in the way he does (I shan’t give away any more):

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim has the usual supply of comic set pieces, but also has an audacious conclusion that, by means of an authorial appearance, “pulls the rug from under the reader”, in Coe’s words — and which is in some ways a return to the experimentalism of his first novel.

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His American publishers didn’t like it, and it’s proved divisive among early readers and reviewers. “I don’t see the last chapter as being anything other than making explicit what the reader, the writer and the characters go through when a book comes to an end anyway,” Coe reflects. “A train of thought that started with my work on the BS Johnson biography was how much we ask from literature, and can it deliver . . . What I’m doing is gesturing explicitly towards the real world out there and saying: ‘this is fiction, that’s real life, don’t get the two confused.'”

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