Book Review: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, Jonathan Coe

Here is another review I recently posted to Goodreads. Jonathan Coe is another author I like very much; I’ve read most of his novels, including The Rotters’ Club, The Closed Circle, The House of Sleep, The Winshaw Legacy, and The Rain Before It Falls. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is his newest.

For those who found The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle a bit too detailed in terms of late twentieth century British history and politics, and for those who found The House of Sleep and The Winshaw Legacy a bit too dramatic, this falls right in the middle. That may have to do with the fact that the narrator is in middle age (Max is 48), rather than a teenager or young adult.

The plot is eccentric but not full of shocking twists and turns; though there certainly are some surprises (Coe always keeps a few twists up his sleeve), they dawn more quietly. Coe also employs (again, but to good effect) the story-within-a-story device, through letters, e-mails, and short stories written by various characters, as well as descriptions of books and documentaries. The story-within-a-story device serves to make real the various characters that enter and leave Max’s life as his path wanders through England and Scotland (bracketed by visits to Australia).

If at times, especially in the beginning and middle, the theme seems to be hitting one over the head, this grows less aggressive throughout the novel and can be forgiven. Max is perpetually thinking about connection with others, and particularly the way that social media, while seeming to promote connection, actually does the opposite. Virtual connection is often shallower and less personal, and allows people to avoid face-to-face (or even voice-to-voice) contact. This issue has been discussed in a variety of outlets, and Coe may be as preoccupied with it as Max is.

However, overall, this is a good book; Coe is an excellent storyteller, neglecting neither character development nor plot. In the last few pages, he breaks down the fourth wall, as they say in theater, which doesn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the book, but it does no harm either.

Some of the tropes of the book (the real and tangible vs. the insubstantial and intangible; loneliness vs. intimacy; cynicism vs. idealism and innocence) are highlighted in the passages below:

p. 144: Had we all lost our wits in the last few years? Had we forgotten that prosperity has to be based on something, something solid and tangible? Even to someone like me, who had done nothing more than skim the papers and the news websites over the last couple of weeks, it was pretty obvious we were getting it badly wrong…that it wasn’t sensible to build an entire society on foundations of air.

p. 189: My own theory – or one of them – was that once you started to hit middle age, you became so jaded and unsurprised by life that you had to have a child in order to provide yourself with a new set of eyes through which to view things, to make them seem fresh and exciting again.

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