By Jonathan Coe
I read Jonathan Coe’s novel, What a Carve Up! while studying at university a couple of years ago. It was an excellent book – not to mention it lead to an essay worthy of a 1st (it got 2:1, but I’m not bitter or anything…) – so I didn’t need much encouragement in reading another of Coe’s titles.
I picked up Number 11 with a great deal of hope. I put down the book with disappointment.
I was unaware when I started reading that Number 11 features a great deal of narrative strands connecting it with his previous novel, What a Carve Up! (WACU). The wealthy and loathsome Winshaw family, who meet a gruesome end in WACU, have some grandchildren and extended family members yet to be culled. Number 11 appears to be Coe’s way of tying up these loose ends.
I have not read any other Coe novels, but his tendency to be self-referential is known, and as such I cannot be certain if “Number 11” is intended as a sequel to WACU, or if he is just sticking to his regular habits by reusing character names and referencing his own work. Even if it is a sequel, Number 11 can certainly be read independently, you’ll just miss out on the occasional giggle when something familiar pops up.
In any case, I can only judge from what I have read myself, and what I think is this: Number 11 is a lazy sequel to What a Carve Up!. Before, there were fantastically clever twists and turns, infuriating but exacting use of metafiction; all leading to a tumultuous and harrowing conclusion which looked into the very soul of modern classism and cultural degradation. And now? Some lame attempts at self-referencing and unrevealing examples of contemporary British existence. Snapchat, “I’m a Celebrity” and the Bedroom Tax.
These contemporary examples are presented in much the same way as his previous work: individual stories, each taking on a different issue, appearing disparate, but eventually pulling together for the dramatic conclusion. I knew a dramatic conclusion was on the way – or at least I was hoping and expecting a dramatic conclusion. I cannot hide my disappointment. The narrative strands did not tie together with anywhere near the potency that I had come to expect from WACU.
It is of course a symptom of the times and of his chosen subject – socio-political satire – that many of the references feel outdated, despite being first published in 2015.
However, it might be that the topics are too recently outdated, thus appearing even more so. This sounds confusing, but let me explain: something is only outdated until it becomes historical.
I read What a Carve Up! in 2014, having been originally published in 1994, the novel itself being set in the 1980’s. Twenty years down the line, I was reading this novel and finding its political satire more relevant, in a historical context. With this in mind, it is feasible that this new novel, Number 11, will become more readable to those not so present in the social landscape it refers to.
Number 11 is a novel that is victim to its own essential quality of being “current”. It was current in 2014, it is not relevant in 2016; it might become significant in 2034.