Friday, November 27, 2020

Dividing lines

As a friend pointed out, actively choosing to digest a book about Brexit demands a robust constitution and a masochistic streak. And yet reading Jonathan Coe's Middle England - the winner of last year's Costa Prize - actually proved to be (somewhat unexpectedly) an escapist pleasure. After all, the state of the nation in this unashamedly state-of-the-nation novel, which concludes in 2018, looks markedly less desperate from the perspective of 2020. It's almost enough to make the reader feel nostalgic for those pre-pandemic days. But then "nostalgia is the English disease", we're told - and a prime cause of the mess we're now in.

Middle England sets out to explain how we got to this point. Opening in 2010, the novel moves elegantly across the years before and immediately after the EU referendum, adeptly tracing how fault lines became fractures and everything gradually span out of control.

The story is told through the lives of fictional characters (some of whom, such as central protagonist Benjamin Trotter, are resurrected from Coe's previous books The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle) set against a backdrop of real events. There are, however, points of contact between personal narratives and the bigger picture, most notably in the form of Doug Anderton (a left-leaning political commentator living in a multi-million-pound Chelsea house - the transparent embodiment of the metropolitan liberal elite) and his girlfriend Gail Ransome, a Remainer Tory MP.

Everywhere you look, relationships are strained to breaking point and personal divisions open up, often directly due to Brexit - between parents and children, between couples, between children's entertainers. (The fracas involving two feuding clowns is just one of the book's many laugh-out-loud comic scenes. Others include a crackpot conspiracy theorist trying to find a suitable shed at a garden centre in which to pitch his book to a prospective publisher; a painfully awkward sex scene that would win the Bad Sex Award if it were given for bad sex rather than bad writing; and a Teflon-coated Tory spin doctor, who has spent most of the book using words like "bantz", referring chummily to "Dave" and coming up with vaguely familiar soundbites like "People have had enough of intellectuals", losing the plot in spectacular fashion and confessing to the party's post-referendum behind-the-scenes omnishambles.)

The deftly handled plot and the way the narratives are interwoven underline Coe's immense skill - but therein, at least in part, lies the novel's problem. Middle England is a balletically orchestrated work of fiction about an incredibly messy situation that we're all still living through, the full consequences of which are as yet unknown. Unlike real life, a book has to have an ending, and, in keeping with the novel's structural imposition of order on chaos, the author chooses to bring it to a suspiciously neat conclusion - one that feels like a cop-out, evidence of wishful thinking.

Afflicted by the "English disease" himself, Coe's sentimental yearning for a metaphorical Middle England lost as the nation has become increasingly polarised is perhaps understandable. But it means that progressive identity politics - represented in the figure of Anderton's misguidedly militant teenage daughter Coriander - are treated as unsympathetically as the rapacious ghouls who run right-wing think tanks. As Guardian reviewer Sam Leith succinctly put it, "this is a great big Centrist Dad of a novel", one that implicitly preaches moderation, understanding, compromise, consensus. And at the end the tumult of our recent history, there in the background all along, is blotted out in favour of fictional fancy that will comfort some (Coe included) but ring false for others.

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