Maxwell Sim, the narrator of Jonathan Coe’s somewhat queasy new comic novel, is a clinically depressed 48 year old salesman, recently separated from his wife, with no close friends and an awkward relationship with his taciturn widower father. He’s as desperately lonely as any character I can remember, to the extent that he’s actually pleased when approached by a mugger for the opportunity to exchange a few words and that he imagines himself falling in love with the woman who voices his sat-nav. His self-esteem isn’t helped by his discovery of various letters, documents and emails written by formerly close companions that all paint him as dull, reactive and unambitious, and his attempts to reach out and connect with the people he meets all seem to backfire horribly. He increasingly finds himself identifying with Donald Crowhurst, whose misguided attempt to sail around the world singlehandedly in an ill-prepared vessel ended in tragedy in the late 60s. This is potentially quite a downer of a book.
Fortunately, Coe is adept at tempering this pretty bleak raw material with some subtle and engaging characterisation, a strong narrative structure that delivers a few unexpected pay-offs and revelations and some very funny setpieces. The tone of the book is frequently informed by David Nobbs’s immortal The Rise And Fall Of Reginald Perrin (there are, in fact, quite a few explicit references for fans to pick up on), particularly in the sequences when Maxwell accepts a job promoting ethically produced toothbrushes for a small firm. The book is set in the wake of the 2008 banking collapse, and there’s some topical comment here and there about globalisation and the depressing homogeneity of British town centres, a trend that Maxwell doesn’t entirely disapprove of (he finds big chain restaurants reassuring, because you always know what you’re going to get). Coe is very good at conveying his character’s unpretentious, sometimes Pooter-ish but never crassly ignorant attitudes while simultaneously letting the reader in on why his friends and family might have given up on him, and Maxwell remains just sympathetic enough to keep you reading despite you wanting to slap him round the face from time to time. Highly recommended, except for those who require dynamism and assertiveness from their lead characters.