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Not A Carve Up!
on August 31, 2003
The Rotter's Club, in which author Coe attempts to do for the seventies which What a Carve Up! did for the eighties, unfortunately suffers by comparison. The intricate and satisfying plotting of that earlier novel (arguably Coe's best to date) is replaced by a much more diffuse structure, which at times strains to cohere satisfactorily. Coe's narrative centres around a quartet of young friends at a Birmingham school and their social, sexual, political and artistic rites of passage. Trotter, Harding, Anderton and Chase are a carefully selected group each of whom allows Coe to make some characteristically gentle insights into the society and mores of the time. These are the dying years of the Labour government, of wildcat strikes; of Enoch Powell and the immigration controversy; of the advent of punk rock; of when NME was a force abroad in the land (at least to some members of the younger generation) and the IRA was bombing pubs in Birmingham. Against this background, Coe focuses on his four central characters. Sean Harding's anarchic figure makes him a legend of lunacy at the school (while concealing a broken family life and a degree of artistic sensibility). Doug Anderton begins to absorb the political lessons of his father a leading shop steward at British Leyland's troubled Longbridge plant, a worker-comrade with `Red' Robbo. (Anderton senior also has an affair with a young girl who abruptly vanishes). Philip Chase struggles to live with his parent's faltering marriage and his faltering career as a progressive rocker. (His mother meanwhile has an affair with Mr Plumb, one of his teachers). And Benjamin trotter, the nominal hero and at the centre of the book is an aspiring composer, novelist, Christian madly in love with the distant Cicely. All four edit the school magazine `The Bill Board', the editorial content of which gives the book some some of its best moments.
There are some very pleasing things here, such as Harding's antics (his inking-up to stage a part in `To Kill a Mockingbird' in class is particularly cherishable), Benjamin's misfortunes as Prefect, or the delicious depiction of the Chase dinner party. The gentle mockery of the pretensions of the lower bourgeoise, the little ironies of everyday life in and out of school, always seem to bring the best of Coe, and are the main reasons to read this book. He is less steady when it comes to big issues of the day. Industrial strife, mainland terrorism and racism are threaded through the narrative proficiently enough, but without making much impact. One feels they are painted in, but without any shade or shadow. It is as if he feels he has to `cover' them, rather than offer any fresh insights as a writer. Significantly, some of the most unconvincing elements in the book surround these larger issues, such as the ghastly tale of Lois' tragedy (which treads dangerously close to bathos), or the industrial strife at Longbridge. Most revealing, while the somewhat prissy Ben is given extensive page coverage, one character which perpetually contains the greatest dramatic potential - that of the solitary, harrassed, black student Steve Richards - hardly utters a word thoughout. His feud with the racist Culpepper, if anything, is underwritten. Perhaps realising, and wishing to balance this, Coe seeks to pump up Ben's presence as a character with a long penultimate section, 36 pages of internal dialogue, written with a full stop. While an interesting formal experiment, this is part of the book that this reader at least found wearisome verging on self-indulgent. Together with some other sections which can be detatched from the plot as separate episodes (the holiday in Denmark and the grandmother's story, for instance) show a distracting lack of focus.
Coe's natural skills as storyteller paper over many of the cracks however, although some loose ends remains unresolved (what did happen to Miriam?). He obviously cares about his characters, and performs the difficult task of providing gentle social satire without the outright mockery which would make the story cruel. I'd recommend this to those who have enjoyed Coes's other books. To one who has not, and wants a representative title to try, I'd suggest the aforementioned What a Carve Up!