In his latest novel, Expo 58, novelist Jonathan Coe achieves a remarkable synthesis of comedic styles, a sly commentary on Great Britain’s place in the world, and a knowing wink to the kingdom’s storied past. Part spy novel and part farce, this whimsical adventure novel by Coe (The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, 2011, etc.) is set during the titular Expo 58, the world’s first major world’s fair following World War II, launched in Brussels, Belgium in April of 1958.
Into this colorful milieu (which also launched Brussel’s famous Atomium), Coe thrusts one Thomas Foley, an upstanding British civil servant and family man in front of whom the author pushes every possible temptation, ranging from a pair of loquacious spies, Radford and Wayne, who want Foley to work on their behalf, to Anneka, a beautiful hostess who Foley develops a terrible crush on. Taking a minor character from his earlier novel, The Rain Before It Falls, Coe builds a landscape that is somehow both outlandish and believable, creating a portrait of the British at a very peculiar time in their history.
“It’s certainly what E.M. Forster did when he sent his characters to Italy and to India,” Coe observes, on the phone from London. “It’s an experience we’ve all shared, Brits and Americans alike. If you’re in a foreign country, it’s very easy to spot tourists and listen to their conversations and realize they’re from your own country. Suddenly their British-ness or Americanism leaps out at you in a bold relief that it wouldn’t have if you were back on home territory.”
It’s fair to say that Coe lightly tortures his protagonist, who is tasked by his superiors at the Central Office of Information to look after the highlight of Britain’s pavilion, a working mockup of a classic London pub called The Britannia.
“I suppose I was interested in the idea of what would happen to a very honest, decent sort of man who lives in a quiet, dullish sort of way if he were taken out of that existence,” Coe muses. “Taking Thomas and throwing him into a world that is both fantastical and grotesque makes it interesting to see what sort of fracture lines would emerge in him and how he would deal with this sudden onrush of choices and crises and decisions that he has to make. It’s a classic setup for comedy because it has a very conventional man who is completely out of his depth. As the book goes on, you figure out that Thomas is misunderstanding things on a number of different levels, and is pretty much being outwitted by everyone.”
The novel is a marvelous nod to a particular breed of British comedy that emerged in the 1950s with radio shows like The Goon Show and television programs like Hancock’s Half Hour, not to mention Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 comic thriller The Lady Vanishes, which features the characters Charles and Caldicott, two bickering Brits portrayed by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford that Coe’s spies strongly resemble.
“Those shows, if you dig deep enough, form the basis for cultural revolution,” Coe says. “That’s really the beginning of our modern, more irreverent way of looking at ourselves. What I constantly find from journalists and readers in general is that people are fascinated by the British sense of humor. They find it fascinating and very appealing and somewhat puzzling as well. It’s a very important part of our national fabric and our national discourse. Without being tuned into British comedy and British irony, you can’t understand a lot of what is being talked about in the public domain because our way of talking is so habitually comic and ironic. I’m increasingly interested by my own place in that fabric.”
There’s also a nod to the British tradition of Cold War spy fiction, though not with the gravity one might expect.
“In Britain, we have two great strands of post-war espionage writing,” Coe says. “We have one strand represented by John Le Carré, which is morally serious, introspective, psychological acute and which uses the Cold War as a means of examining issues of loyalty and friendship. Ian Fleming, on the other end of the spectrum, treats it purely as camp entertainment. We grew up with shows and movies that used the Cold War as the background for high-spirited entertainment, with the West as the heroes and the Russians as the villains. That’s really the narrative that I pay homage to in Expo 58.”
While the novel pokes fun at all manners of countries and characters—the Belgians in the book mischievously place the Russian and American pavilions right next to each other—Coe reserves most of his satire for his countrymen.
“Any disrespect is really aimed at the British characters,” Coe chuckles. “I’m very pro-European and very struck by how committed so many Europeans I meet are to a united Europe, which is a debate that is constantly unfolding here in Britain. I’m very much with the Europeans on this one and I give Thomas and the other British characters a fair bit of ribbing on that particular subject. Expo 58 is set at the very beginning of this organization (the European Union) at a time when it was still possible to be idealistic about it. The book is sort of a hymn to idealism, written at a time when our default position seems to be cynicism.”
Coe’s faithful narrative and deep research finally led him to the outskirts of Antwerp, where he discovered that the original Britannia pub had been moved lock, stock and barrel, and was now operating as a Chinese restaurant.
“When I saw it, I had such a strong sense of the past and present coming together,” Coe says. “The book ends on something of a bittersweet note, as so many of my books do. There’s a pervasive sense of melancholy in my writing which, try as I might, I can’t seem to keep at bay.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.