I’ve had mixed responses to Jonathan Coe novels over the years. I loved The Rotters’ Club and What a Carve Up!, I thought The Closed Circle (follow up to The Rotters’ Club) and House of Sleep were okay, and I’ve started one or two others that I couldn’t get through at all.
Middle England picks up the story of the protagonists of The Rotters’ Club in 2010 and follows their stories up to and after the Brexit referendum. It doesn’t have a conventional narrative arc, it’s more a series of vignettes showing how Benjamin, Doug and co react to current events and to changes in their personal lives. It’s a bit like a hearing a series of anecdotes about old friends, moderately entertaining if you know them (though I’m not sure you’d be interested if you don’t).
While What a Carve Up! took apart Tory rule with savagery and humour and heart, I found this examination of Brexit terribly condescending. If you’ve been following politics at all in recent years, I don’t think you’ll learn or experience anything new. If you’re not interested in politics, why would you read it at all?
The political points made in the novel, such as they are, are so crass and obvious that they make phone-ins seem erudite. Benjamin’s father and pretty much everyone of their generation is a cross between Victor Meldrew and Katie Hopkins, while it seems the true pain of Brexit for the protagonists is that they have to listen to dreadful people’s views over dinner.
I know that people actually do say the things that you think are only clichés (who hasn’t sat through an awkward family Christmas or a wedding trying to ward off comments about how ‘the neighbourhood has gone downhill since they moved in’, or ‘my best friend’s cousin’s brother is getting a fortune in disability and he plays golf three times a week’) but in a novel don’t we want something a bit more challenging? Something that tries to understand the lives and thoughts of people who disagree with us? Something to make us consider the bigger forces that led us to this point?
If Coe is on the side of progressives, why does he make all the characters so unsympathetic and out of touch? Sophie, Benjamin’s niece, doesn’t think racism is a thing in one chapter, then in the next thinks an Asian woman is ‘brave’ because she runs a class for speeding drivers(?!). Sophie’s beginning a career in higher education but instead of struggling to pay the rent on precarious short-term contracts, she drifts airily between teaching in Birmingham, research at the British Library and lucrative private lecture gigs. The people who are really suffering are at the periphery of the story. Doug’s privileged daughter, who invites herself to a riot on a kind of poverty safari, is at least self-aware.
I don’t think you can call it satire if it doesn’t make you laugh, or give you some insight, or motivate you to change. This just made me sad.
I received a copy of Middle England from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Middle England on Goodreads
In the interests of balance, here’s Jonathan Coe’s take on how fiction can help us make sense of the news