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What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe – book review

I read this by mistake. Or I thought I did. I was going to warm myself up for Middle England, which general opinion has it as Coe’s immediate response to Brexit. Anyway, I thought the characters in this would reappear in Middle England, which, it turns out, they will not. I have no regrets about reading What a Carve Up! though as I reached the end I begun to wonder whether I had had any choice in the matter. Carve Up’s characters fall into two types: those who have agency and those who are set up in ridiculously complex scenes involving implausible levels of coincidence. It says something about Coe’s storytelling that we might none the less suspend disbelief and feel drawn in like this and sense that we are losing our own agency; that isn’t inevitable because this ambitious, free-wheeling, postmodern novel is very aware of itself and deliberately jars its own relationship with the reader on countless occasions. As well as What a Carve Up! (the 1961 film), the book compares itself with Theatre of Blood and And then there were none. And every now and again I find myself writing down a sentence that I think is the book’s main message. For this is a book with a mission. Oh my.

Cover of What a Carve Up! by Jonathan CoeLet’s back up. The book features an awful, awful family and a highly-strung writer who is researching that family’s story. The family are written so that they can describe the worst excesses of the 1980s: greedy, selfish, cruel and entitled, they inhabit the worlds of high finance, arms sales, industrial farming, politics and the media. I can’t imagine Coe having the personality traits of Michael the writer, although I can imagine him writing, as Michael does (don’t get meta here, you know what I mean):

‘I hate these people, how evil they are, how much they’ve spoiled everything with their vested interests and their influence and their privilege and their stranglehold on all the centres of power.’

Coe’s novel is hugely funny in places and also very sad. Hugely funny: there are jokes everywhere including a particularly fine sequence which runs for a few pages which is based on a newspaper subeditor’s misspelling, and a running joke about plinths that also includes a throw-away pun. And there are various bits that are satirical – though I’ll come back to that. But the actions of the awful family have so many consequences and their power seeps into every area of life, and the overall effect can be to numb us into a general helplessness. The worst of it all is that although some Winshaws are quite strategic in mapping out where extra wealth can be extracted, others ride their luck. The odious Hilary tells Alan Beamish – a symbol of warm-hearted wooziness – that if she has taken control it is because ‘you left the gate swinging wide open’. And he had. Hilary assumed that a career would land on her lap, and so it did, but it’s her base cunning (and a rather good memory) that makes her outwit those around her. It is the cunning of the Winshaws that sets them apart.

I say ‘the worst of it all’ and I also said it’s a book with a mission. I daresay that there will be people who would regard the Winshaws as role models. Perhaps this book is given to all Apprentice contestants. But somehow I can’t imagine, for example, an Ayn Rand fan enjoying the plot and ignoring Coe’s fury. It’s a book that will be nodded along with by those who agree with it. I can’t decide whether that makes it successful as a satire. You are either an evil Winshaw or ineffective: the opposition is not drawn strongly enough to be an equivalent target. The Last Election by Pete Davies, written in 1987, managed to flay both sides.

What a Carve Up! is clever, inventive and energetic. So much of its content is relevant to the present day. And Coe is ready to play: there is so much experimentation with the form of the novel, with multiple narrators, timejumps, format shifts including newspaper articles and supposed book extracts. It will make you reassess what this genre is capable of. I’m going to read Middle England and will confirm whether Coe was able to push the form further, and feed our hunger for the modern novel or whether he lacks the necessary brie.

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