The state of the nation novel is a strange thing: ambitious, serious and a bit artificial, and it certainly seems artificial to review one. Where do you start? Where shall I start, with Jonathan Coe’s Middle England? I finished it a couple of weeks ago and have been stewing about it.
Thing is, once you know that an author is going to set out for us The Condition Of England, you come to the book in a certain way. Explain it for us, Mr Coe, we say. We are looking for answers, for tips, for wisdom, but that seems demanding when the best novels don’t give us answers but instead ask us difficult questions.
This is Coe’s Brexit novel, and so we are on strange territory. We know how it ends. We know what we think about the two sides. And we want to know more about our opponents: what was it that they did? Can we be brought together again? And at the same time we want to be reassured that we were better than we really were.
Coe hedges his bets, a bit. We’ll muddle through, probably, because when it comes down to it our values systems are about more than politics. There’s a ‘rank odour of hatred’ but that could be down to waxing and waning power in the land; elsewhere Coe is careful to point out ‘a melding of different cultures that [Enoch] Powell’s ‘pinched, ungenerous mind’ could never understand – and that national claims to be moderate and tolerant are bogus. He gives most of his characters some good points to make, on both sides of the argument. At least, I think they are good points: a seasoned story-teller can manipulate their audience so lightly.
Talking of technique, I am reminded so much of David Lodge and Nice Work in particular. In Sophie, the youngish academic, we meet a contemporary Robyn Penrose; there’s a reactionary Mr Wilcox, folks dance to The Power of Love and there’s a kind of, similar-ish, resolution for the two characters. I do so hope Coe has done all this on purpose.
Middle England is clever. There is plenty of commentary and insight. Coe wants to tell us about the speechless anger into which England has descended: the sense of injustice, victimhood and superiority, the curious and contradictory mix of authoritarianism and libertarianism. He shares the blame out liberally: Cameron (possibly all centrists but that works only if you believe Cameron was a centrist) comes in for a particularly rough ride through his ridiculous aide Nigel. But young activists are portrayed as self-righteous bullies, and old racists as particularly vile, selfish and hate-filled. They are astutely observed but Coe indicates that he neither understands them nor wants to.
In contrast, I get the idea that Coe does understand late middle-age, very much so; although I am not at that age, I find his characters convincing, and affectionately drawn – which is not to say they are particularly likeable. Their powers (political, professional and physical) are in decline; they are adjusting to new and narrower boundaries but are braver within those boundaries: they will make life-changing decisions that throw off the ‘quiet satisfactions of underachievement’. When we hear Benjamin’s life described as one that ‘lacks any kind of achievement, any kind of self-knowledge and so, in the end, any kind of hope’, I’m not sure whether we think it rings as truly as it would have at the beginning of the novel. That’s the counterpoint to Coe’s unoriginal but accurate prediction that the vested interests behind Brexit will continue their culture war and to stoke the sense of betrayal among their key audience.
Did I enjoy this? I don’t know. There are some moments of high comedy, of bathos and farce. I loved the description of The Lark Ascending as a posher Birdie Song. The feud between the children’s entertainers though often sad was equally often hilarious. Set pieces delighted, as you’d expect from this author. There is lots to enjoy, and lots to think about. If only I had got beyond the artificiality which I had placed onto the entire enterprise. If you’re a better reader than I am, you’ll do well to read this.
Thanks to Penguin UK for the review copy.