The lonely life of an everyman who might as well be called a nobody is the subject of the popular British author’s ninth novel (The Rain Before It Falls, 2008, etc.).
Late-40-ish Max Sim, on leave while "recovering” from depression from his job as a department store’s customer liaison officer, is estranged from his disapproving wife, Caroline, and his daughter. Despite an array of computerized and other devices that offer connection to everywhere and everyone, Max seems eternally on the periphery of his own story. In fact, we learn about the experiences and influences that have formed him from the testimony of other people. A girl whom Max admires tells him the (real life) story of Donald Crowhurst, the yachtsman who entered a round-the-globe race and promptly disappeared (Max senses an immediate kinship). Caroline, a writer who despairs over Max’s indifference to culture, contributes a mordant fictionalization of a disastrous family vacation. A school essay written by a childhood friend’s sister, and a confessional memoir penned by Max’s absentee father, a would-be poet living in Australia (whence Max returns from a visit at the novel’s outset), complete the array of judgmental perspectives on our antihero’s many, many failings. The story’s central action is Max’s car trip to the Shetland Islands, as a rep delivering a shipment of eco-friendly toothbrushes to a client. It’s a ruefully comic plunge into the unknown, during which Max appears to form a relationship with the voice of his car’s “satnav” (GPS navigational system); so it goes, in the brave new world of instant communication. It’s a risky road for a novel to travel, especially when a postmodernist-metafictional dénouement and ending underscore this book’s peculiar challenges to the reader. Still, like the hero of many a BBC-TV comedy, Max carries on, and may, like the cockroach, outlast all the “normal” people who keep their distances from him.
Not for every taste, but a significant building block in Coe’s adventurous and distinctive oeuvre.