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30 November 2015

Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 is a bitingly dark portrait of society

A spider’s web of money binds lives together in Coe's state-of-the-nation novel.

By Erica Wagner

PC Nathan Pilbeam is a copper with a difference. Just 24 years old and stuck out in Guildford (sorry, Guildford), he has a passion for criminal investigation and a need to prove his pet theory that all crime must be set in a political, social and cultural context. He reads everything he can get his hands on, the better to understand the world around him; his colleagues call him “Nate of the Station” (Jonathan Coe has a special genius for puns). Reading up on a case – he’ll take in anything from the London Review of Books and Freud to blogging comedians – he is struck by something he finds online, an argument that comedy does a disservice to society by dissipating anger. “Every time we laugh at the venality of a corrupt politician, at the greed of a hedge fund manager, at the spurious outpourings of a right-wing columnist, we’re letting them off the hook.”

Coe said something along the same lines a few years ago when he was talking about his much-loved novel What a Carve Up! (1994). One might fairly ask: where does that leave Jonathan Coe? For, just over two decades later, he has followed up that outrageously funny novel with a sequel. Or rather, a sequel of sorts: while it is certainly connected to its predecessor, you’ll do fine with this book if you have never read What a Carve Up! And while this novel might not make you double up with helpless laughter in quite the same way, it’s proof that Coe retains his comic gift.

But this isn’t stand-up; Coe’s satire has a purpose. What a Carve Up! was centred around the Winshaw family, “the meanest, greediest, cruellest bunch of back-stabbing, penny-pinching bastards who ever crawled across the face of the earth”. Their influence, we saw, stretched the length and breadth of the land and the novel was a portrait of how the consumer society had eroded the postwar social contract – even back in the 1990s. Coe has called it a preachy novel and so it was, but no less enjoyable for that, and the same can be said of its successor.

As Number 11 opens, two ten-year-old girls, Alison and Rachel, are staying with Rachel’s grandparents in Yorkshire. They arrive on the night in 2003 when the body of the WMD expert Dr David Kelly is discovered at Harrowdown Hill, in Oxfordshire. That death and its political repercussions have no real part to play in the rest of the novel – yet they haunt the book as we follow Alison and Rachel forward into their lives. Alison tries to make her way as an artist and Rachel gets into Oxford. Kelly serves as the factual emblem that there are forces moving our lives over which we have no control: and, yes, that’s pretty didactic.

Coe means to make a point, as the title of his novel reveals. This is indeed Coe’s 11th novel and the number recurs in the book, as a bus route (Birmingham’s 26-mile outer circle route, renowned among aficionados of public transport); as the number of a house and a storage unit; as the number of storeys in a vast Chelsea basement. But money runs the show: that is the chief force that drives us all, in Coe’s book, whether we will or no. The number of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s official residence can never be far from the reader’s mind.

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Alison’s and Rachel’s lives are connected to other lives, too. There is Val, Alison’s mother, a one-time singer scrabbling to make ends meet and who thinks that she has been saved when she is invited on to I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!; Laura, Rachel’s tutor at Oxford, who takes her student under her wing and tells her the long and peculiar story of her husband’s mysterious death; Sir Gilbert Gunn and his family, members of the 1 per cent (make that the 0.01 per cent), into whose lives Rachel is drawn when she goes to work as a tutor for their Eton-educated son and their strangely well-behaved twin girls. There is our friend Nate of the Station, determined to discover what is behind a spate of mysterious disappearances. Throughout there are traces of the Winshaw legacy – a spider’s web of money and lies binds all of these lives together and from it there is no escape.

Coe hasn’t lost his ability to paint a bitingly dark portrait of society and he has moved with the times. Particularly strong are the sections in which Val heads out to the Australian “jungle” to have her utter humiliation televised; if that humiliation is not surprising, it is no less shocking for that. And when Rachel finds herself living in the Gunns’ Chelsea mansion, Coe’s descriptions of a London consumed and abandoned by wealth, where “the tangy scent of money” hangs in the air and houses left empty by their vastly rich owners accumulate value, are haunting. Walking past those houses, you can watch “money attach to them like barnacles to a sunken ship”.

Sometimes, Coe falls prey to exposition. Characters tell tales to each other that might have been dramatised. Yet his storytellers are compelling: the novel has flaws but it catches you and won’t let go, like that sticky spider’s web. Readers who thought What a Carve Up! was too much of a sermon probably won’t be converted. But there are plenty of us who are awfully glad – if alarmed – to see how the Winshaw legacy carries on into the present day. 

Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 is published by Viking (£16.99, 353pp).

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State