Friday, 11 December 2015

For 11/12: Number 11 by Jonathan Coe



published 2015


Number 11


[Nathan has invited a young woman round to dinner]

Nathan’s gaze…had been fixed on Lucinda herself. He was impressed, in particular, by her dress. It was made of some thick bottle-green material and was positively heroic in its shapelessness. For a mere arrangement of cloth to be so accomplished at not just hiding the contours of somebody’s body, but even giving the impression that these contours didn’t exist and must be the product of the spectator’s lurid imagination was, he thought, quite a triumph of the dressmaker’s art. How was it done? The more time he spent with Lucinda, the more he realized that – whatever professional heights he might go on to scale in the future – there would always be some questions that could never be answered, or mysteries solved.

commentary: This book is very set on its 11s, they feature everywhere in it, so understandably it was published on 11th November, a month ago. I missed that date so thought it only fair to try to get my blogpost out on 11th December instead.

We are big Jonathan Coe fans round here – his The Rain Before it Falls gave us a blogpost in October, and my reading of 20th Century female authors is enhanced by his essays on the subject. We share quite a few favourite novels – see entries on Rosamond Lehmann’s Ballad and the Source, and May Sinclair’s Harriet Frean.

I’ve been reading his books since What a Carve Up!, which was one of the key political texts of the 1990s, but also a hilarious, highly entertaining and beautifully structured novel. I’m going to have to read it again – a pleasure – because this book is not exactly a sequel, but does feature some of the characters from it. The Winshaw family is still of great importance.

It is very hard to say what this book is about – the action and central characters keep changing. Two young women, Rachel and Alison, are teenage friends and have a strange experience. Alison’s mother, Val, is a former pop star who ends up on a reality show. Nathan, above, is a policeman – his name is Pilbeam, and Coe has said he likes to choose names carefully, so I wondered if that was a reference to Nova Pilbeam, who died this year, and whose starring role in the Hitchcock film The Young and the Innocent featured in a blogpost.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot because one of the joys for me was that I never knew where Coe was taking us next – the book is full of the unexpected. But it’s fair to say that Coe takes in, and satirizes very cleverly, very many aspects of modern life: that reality show, and the London residents digging underground (done much better than in John Lanchester’s Capital, on the blog and recently on BBC TV), the rich people who fear their son won’t get into Oxford because he went to Eton. I loved the Winshaw Prize for the Best Prize –
the shock year in 2005 when it was awarded to the little-known Giggleswick Prize for the best flower arrangement in the BD postal area blew things wide open.
It’s a very funny and entertaining book, but also savage, clever and knowing about life in England today, from food banks to tutors to corporate events. It's heartfelt and political, and I loved it.

About the illo – Lucinda, above, later on wears a black cocktail dress and looks ravishing, but that was too easy. I really wanted to do the bad dress. But on the other hand, I don’t like to be judgemental about the people in photos – suppose I found a picture of a dress I thought ugly, but it was the favourite of the lady concerned, who considered herself beautiful in it? But job done with this, which is obviously from a fashion show: the model doesn’t care and the designer meant it to look like this.






14 comments:

  1. That IS the perfect picture!! Absolutely spot on.

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    1. Thanks Daniel - praise from you is worth having!

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  2. It sounds like a terrific skewering of modern life, Moira, which can be really effective. And I do like the writing style, just from the snippet you shared - clever and sarcastic without actually losing the nuance. And sometimes, not having a 'compass' as you read can take you on a very interesting literary journey...

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    1. I do love surprises in 'literary' novels, Margot - it must be a hangover from all those crime stories. It's one reason why I don't usually read blurbs. (which often give away far too much in my opinion.)

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  3. Even if I were inclined to read something non-mystery at this time, I think I would miss many of the references. I do that anyway, but with a book set in the UK, everything would be over my head. Glen would probably get most of it.

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    1. It is a VERY British book. I loved it, but I think it might have less to say to someone elsewhere.

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  4. Moira: Ugh!!!! What a waste of material.

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    1. Yes! Especially as you could make a quite decent warm tunic or dress out of it, it looks like it could be nice and cosy for the storms of Canada.....

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    2. I actually really like it the more I look at it - ironically, the fact it obscures so much means that you focus on the woman inside the dress, seeing her rather than her figure or boobs or whatever, and it has a very architectural presence which implies that there must be something REALLY structured and solid underneath, such as a perfect body - so it is quite an intellectual kind of design, very Balenciaga in that sense as Balenciaga was all about clothes that stood away from the body to camouflage perceived flaws and imply hidden perfection.

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    3. I'm glad that you can see the good in it Daniel, and I take your word for it! I think the material is beautiful, and clothes in that kind of thick structure fabric can look fabulous, and very flattering.

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  5. Moira, your description of the book towards the end reminds me of the works of the late American author, Richard Armour, who wrote entertaining books titled "It all Started with Columbus," "It all Started with Eve," "It all Started with Europa," and "It all Started with Marx" and the like. Real fun books too, though I'm not sure how they compare with this one.

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    1. I've not come across that author Prashant - off to look him up now...

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  6. Replies
    1. I feel that What a Carve Up! or the Rotters Club might have been mentioned by you at some time...

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