Poor Maxwell Sim at least he's got seventy friends on Facebook....most of them complete strangers but he posts
'cheerful, ironically worded status updates to show them all what a busy life I was leading.'
Maxwell forty-eight years old, a misfit exhausted by his efforts to fit in and hoping his Hugo Boss jeans and Lacoste shirt will do the trick. A victim of the 21st century and born into the in-between generation who have perhaps known both worlds, the pre and post-computer age, those who have had to make choices about how much or how little of it to embrace and then wondered quite how to.
So he embraces Facebook when in fact the truth is much more worryingly stark,
'As for human contact, I'd lost all appetite for it. Mankind has, as you may have noticed, become very inventive about devising new ways for people to avoid talking to each other, and I've been taking full advantage of the most recent ones.'
Seemingly hopeless at reading social signs, it's a real effort to get alongside a first-person narrative character who appears wholly unreliable, and who if you met somewhere you might hastily judge as uninteresting or boring and move on... but that's the trouble, that's what everyone does to Maxwell in his eyes...in his eyes...that's important. There might be a limit to the conversation Maxwell and I could sustain on the subject of toothbrush sales for example, so when, in between jobs and suffering from depression after the breakdown of his marriage (and possibly before) Maxwell embarks on a four day sales and publicity trip for a newly designed toothbrush, I wondered quite where Jonathan Coe was taking me.
You see I told you didn't I?
Own up it's not really grabbing you is it?
And that cover's a bit garish isn't it...doesn't match the decor here at all.
Well I was almost deceived into thinking likewise and surrendering, but several threads intrigued me, and I have to confess kept me reading longer than I might have done, and how glad I am that I saw it through to the end with Maxwell, because what lies beneath, with its themes of 21st century isolation and loneliness, and the potential for a futile existence in the midst of so much technology, somehow pulled this together to the point where I couldn't put the book down.
And as for the final page...loved it loved it loved it...worth reading the book just to see what sleight of hand Jonathan Coe comes up with to round off his novel.
The action builds around the central plot of Maxwell's journey, both inner and outer, which Jonathan Coe anchors in the past as well as the techno-crazy present, with his use of the story of the voyage of Donald Crowhurst, thus demonstrating that perhaps this is not just a 21st century malaise after all. I barely recall the scandal of the mysterious voyage of lone sailor Donald Crowhurst back in the 1960s, when men still steered by the stars not the satellites, and could be incommunicado at sea for weeks on end, but I do recall the sense of national pride as Francis Chichester sailed home after his single-handed circumnavigation.
Somehow drawn into the Sunday Times £5000 round-the-world race which followed, Crowhurst set sail with barely the maritime experience to get him out of Teignmouth harbour, let alone around Cape Horn. He chose the route of deception with careful manipulation of log books, perfectly possible in those days, and decided to mosey up and down the African coast and rejoin the race nearer the end. Thus began Crowhurst's great and fateful unraveling as the deception became unsustainable and the depth of the lie he would have to live with for the rest of his life became apparent.
The parallels, albeit in a minor key, become evident in Maxwell Sim's life too, he's similarly shipwrecked, just with a black Toyota Prius instead of a boat and a SatNav he calls Emma and talks to all the time.
One of Crowhurst's last poems, written before madness descended and he disappeared over the side of his boat, somehow encapsulates Maxwell's plight too
'Save some pity for the Misfit, fighting on with bursting heart;
Not a trace of common sense, his is not common flight.
Save, save him some pity. But save the greater part
For him that sees no glimmer of the Misfit's guiding light.
Chris Packham (he of Springwatch...used to have blond hair and do children's TV) enthused about the book The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst on the radio a while back so bells rang, but several other even funnier bells rang rang as I read.
Me...with a cup of tea in bed shouting down to Bookhound in the kitchen.
'What's that book called on the kitchen shelf?'
Which shelf...which book?'
'The book with the nice blue cover that I propped up because it matched the teapot...'
'Who's it by?'
And finally Narrowboat, the book I bought for £1 because it had nice illustrations by Denys Watkins - Pitchford, and the cover looked a little Vanessa Bell-like, finds a place because Jonathan Coe mentions it at a key stage of his novel.
Then there's a priceless moment when Maxwell, parted from his wife joins an online parenting site and masquerades as a woman, befriending his wife, who then starts sending him her short stories, which of course feature the gaping flaws in their marriage...it's sad but funny rolled into one.
So in the end I was convinced and thoroughly enjoyed a book I didn't think I was going to, but I wonder, did all this work like magic for me in a way that it might not work for others?
If you've read this I'd love to know your thoughts...