The Closed Circle

by Jonathan Coe
384 pages,
ISBN: 0375414150

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Life after Thatcher Yields Cynical Sequel
by Lisa Salem-Wiseman

A recent book review suggested that a sound course of action for anyone wishing to become the next up-and-coming novelist would be to change one's name to Jonathan. Indeed, among the most interesting and talented young writers of the moment are a number of Jonathans-Lethem, Franzen, and Safran-Foer. This list, I would argue, is incomplete without the addition of the British author Jonathan Coe, whom I discovered when a colleague recommended his 1994 novel The Winshaw Legacy (British title: What a Carve Up!), a wickedly funny satire of Thatcher-era England. Coe followed this success with The House of Sleep (1997) and The Rotters' Club (2002), a complex narrative about a group of school friends in Manchester in the 1970s. The story, which ends on the eve of Margaret Thatcher's first term, is told in 2003 by a young woman named Sophie. At the centre of the story are Sophie's mother, Lois, devastated by the death of her fiancT Malcolm in a 1974 IRA pub bombing, and Sophie's uncles Benjamin and Paul. Sophie recounts the tale to Patrick, the son of Benjamin's friend Claire, who is haunted by the mysterious disappearance of her sister, Miriam.
The Rotters' Club was equally successful as social commentary, satire and soap opera, and readers who were reluctant to say goodbye to the King William's schoolboys Ben Trotter, Doug Anderton, and Philip Chase, were no doubt cheered by the Author's Note which followed the close of the story: "There will be a sequel to The Rotters' Club, entitled The Closed Circle, resuming the story in the late 1990s." Now, three years later, that novel has arrived. The Closed Circle begins-after a series of letters from Claire to her still-missing sister, Miriam-on December 31, 1999, with Ben Trotter methodically backing up the files on his computer. The millennial anxiety that the systems supporting contemporary existence could collapse at any moment is sustained throughout the novel, which is much bleaker than any of Coe's previous novels. Many of the loose threads from the previous volume are satisfyingly resolved, though the emphasis in the new book is on the major political and social changes that have occurred in Great Britain over the last three decades.
Among his fans, Coe is known for his comic set-pieces, and in The Closed Circle, the funniest and most vicious are at the expense of Paul Trotter, Benjamin's younger brother, who has grown from a "creepy little right-wing shit" to one of the stars of Tony Blair's New Labour party despite the fact that, in the words of a co-worker, he's "so screened off from what's happening in the real world, it's frightening." His foot perpetually in his mouth, he attempts to improve his public image by hiring a "media adviser", a move which only makes the problem worse. If he weren't in a position of power, Paul could be dismissed as a bumbling yet harmless fool; however, his decisions have devastating consequences. A scene that manages to be both humorous and chilling shows Paul struggling to form an opinion about Britain's support of a possible war in Iraq; he decides to vote in favour of Britain's participation because he and his mistress are using the apartment of a political journalist for their trysts, and, he reasons, "If we go to war in Iraq, Mark will be sent there too and we can start using his flat again."
Indeed, such blatant self-interest is the root of much preventable suffering in The Closed Circle, as is the tendency to mythologize elements of a history that we can never fully understand. All of the characters struggle with the legacy of their past. Benjamin, in particular, has defined himself in relation to certain people and events, which he is forced to radically rethink over the course of the novel. Similarly, events from the first novel-the disappearance of Miriam Newman, the drugging of King William's School's lone black student on the day of his A-levels, and the antics of the "class clown", Sean Harding-are revisited and reframed in such a way as to make certain ideas and themes, already present in the first novel, more prominent in the sequel. These reframings almost always impute something more sinister and potentially dangerous than the original context. While The Rotters' Club was almost elegiac in its treatment of the social conventions, music and politics of the 1970s, the nostalgia of the earlier novel has given way to vitriol, which is directed at Tony Blair and the New Labour party. Coe writes of one character:

"His overriding sense was that every system of values seemed to be in a state of flux, of meltdown, and that somehow New Labour itself was symptomatic of this, constantly talking a language of beliefs and idealism but in fact behaving with as much ruthless pragmatism as anybody else, and as deeply in thrall to its own God (the free market economy) as any Muslim fanatic."

One gets the sense that this is where Coe had been heading all along, and that the nearly 800 pages that make up the saga of the Trotters, the Newmans, the Chases, and the Andertons have all been in the service of an anti-Labour polemic. Each personal crisis and tragedy is revealed to have a political dimension. In particular, Coe tends to be strident in his criticism of Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq, connecting it to incidents of terrorism and predicting further retaliation: "It's only a matter of time before something worse happens. Something huge..." These words, spoken by Lois, whose own life has been altered forever by an earlier act of terrorism, certainly have more impact now than they would have before the London bombings of July 7; however, if Coe's treatment of terrorism has value for the reader, it lies neither in placing blame nor in instilling fear, but in invoking empathy for the victims. A skilled hand at portraying people, he takes his readers inside the thoughts and emotions of survivors of IRA bombings, victims of racist violence, and workers whose jobs are threatened by looming plant closures. By doing so, he humanizes politics, showing that behind every seemingly calculated decision or act lies an expanding web of interconnected human lives that are forever altered.
The fact that Coe has chosen to allow a large gap between the two installments of his story (leaving out marriages, divorces, births, postsecondary education and the establishment of careers) suggests that Coe is less interested in the individual dramas of his characters than in the life of their nation. The changes in the characters during the intervening years reveal the consequences of political decisions on private lives, with particular attention to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, the transformation of the Labour Party at the hands of Tony Blair, and what one character in the earlier novel calls "the death of the socialist dream". Fans of the earlier novel may find this one to be considerably less funny and more angry, but taken together, the two provide an amusing yet provocative view of English society in the thirty years between 1973 and 2003, as it moves from an idealistic, irreverent adolescence to a sober, disillusioned middle age. Sadly for those who, like me, find themselves happily engrossed in the lives of these characters, Coe neglects to leave us with the promise of a sequel this time. Perhaps this is fitting for a novel that admits that the future is uncertain and that the younger generation-represented by Patrick and Sophie-may not have the luxury of repeating their parents' mistakes.

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