In Praise of the ‘Merely’ Pleasant

“The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim” by Jonathan Coe  (2011) – 336 pages

 With personal computers and cell phones, anyone can have an active social life without leaving their room, without seeing anyone.  Maxwell Sim has seventy Facebook friends.  So why is Max so lonely?

For one thing Max is separated from his wife and daughter.  Max is not the brightest bulb in the lamp.  Before she left, his wife thought it might be good for Max if he became interested in literature.  He asked her for some suggestions, and she said he might like one of the Rabbit books.  Max heads down to the local library and comes back with Watership Down. 

Now that Max and his wife are separated, he finds the best way he can communicate with her is to assume the identity of ‘SouthCoastLizzie’, Liz Hammond, and join a moms’ discussion group on the Internet in which his wife participates.  Max’s wife and Liz hit it off a lot better than she and Max ever did.

Max’s former job title was “After-Sales Customer Liaison Officer”.  What he really did was handle returns in a department store.

“The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim” is basically the story of Max as he travels from Watford, England to Australia to visit his father and then back again, gets a job and a Prius,  meets a lot of people.  Nothing very major or significant happens in the novel, but the writing is very funny. Early in the novel, Max tries to describe this woman he meets and ends up saying “Sorry, I’m just not very good at describing people.”  Then he attempts to describe her clothing, but gives up saying “I am not very good at describing clothes either – are you looking forward to the next three hundred pages?” 

There are several set pieces in the novel which are like short stories in themselves which only peripherally relate to Max’s story   

I’ve wanted to read Jonathan Coe for a long time.  There is nothing earth-shatterring or deep in this novel. This novel is not going to change your life, but it is a pleasant humorous way to pass the time.  If I were grading this novel, it would get a solid B.

Reading “The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim” got me to thinking about the difference between the way England treats its literary  novelists and the way the United States treats them.  In England, there is a large audience for literary novels.  The leading newspapers cover the publication of a new novel as a significant event.  A fairly large number of novelists are held in high esteem, the public eagerly awaits their next book, and the profession of literary novelist is valued. 

In the United States, there is no large audience for literary novels, so these novels have to be hyped to the max in order to sell at all.  Thus every few months, there has to be another hyped ‘Great American Novel’ which usually turns out to be awfully lame.  The whole literary scene is rather desperate in the United States, There are very few literary novelists in the United States that are held in high esteem, who have an eager public awaiting their next work.

I’m sure in England there are many readers who value Jonathan Coe’s humorous approach, but he has not developed a United States following yet.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve read four Coes — loved the first three (The Rotters’ Club is probably my favorite) but was very disappointed in his last. Previous reviews of this one had left me worried about it — your thoughts indicate that it would seem to be much more similar to the ones that I enjoyed. Thanks.

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  2. Hi Kevin,
    I was just reading an article that mentioned that “The Rotters’ Club” was his best work. I really enjoy his humor as well as combining it with a story that held my interest.

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  3. There’s nothing wrong with a solid B — sounds like the sort of book I would give a 7-7.5 for, the sort of novel that is well-written, tells a good story but lacks that little bit of innovation/inspiration in style, structure and/or language to lift it to the next level. I’ve heard of Coe but haven’t read him.

    Am interested in your comments on literary novelists. I suspect we are a bit more like England here – though our market is very small – but would be interested in what other Australians have to say about it.

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  4. Hi WhisperingGums,
    Considering Australia’s excellent track record, there must be a comparatively large audience for literary fiction there. As always, the United States seems more impressed by quantity of sales than by quality. My experience indicates there are more first-rate novelists in Australia than in the United States despite the much smaller population. I’m not being much of a cheerleader for the USA, but one must face facts.

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  5. Nothing earth-shattering, but good… that’s a reasonable enough incentive to read a book, if only on a quiet, boring day when something pleasant to pass the time is necessary. I admit, though, that the cover is a bit too… umm, cutesy/hip (?) for my taste. I don’t actually know what it is about it, but there’s something there that rubs off me the wrong way…

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  6. Hi Biblibio,
    Yes, the cover of the book hardly matches the theme of my article, in praise of the merely pleasant. What happened is that I listened to a downloaded audio version of the book and had not even seen the cover when I wrote the article. I then got the cover from Google images and realized it kind of clashed with my article but put it in the article anyway. That’s the way it goes.

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