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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

Structural Whimsy

Number 11 - Jonathan Coe

A satire on the commodification of modern life, Number 11 begins with ten year old Rachel and her brother visiting their grandparents in their quiet suburban house. Her brother drops out of the story entirely but Rachel grows older, goes to Oxford and becomes a tutor to the children of a super-rich family.

 

The story also follows the fortunes of Rachel's school-friend Alison and her mother, a former pop-star who only ever had one-hit. Alison becomes an unemployed art-student and is set up by a journalist to look like a benefits cheat. Her mother appears on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and the experience ruins her life.  In different ways, Rachel, Alison and her mother  all fall victim to the machinations of the Winshaws, an influential family at the the heart of the British establishment.  

 

Like all Coe's work, this is a highly political novel and you are left in no doubt about the author's perspective. He is disgusted by the inequality in our society, appalled by the callousness of the rich and powerful, and sickened by the omnipresence of the market. I wouldn't argue with any of that. What wearies me is his tendency to labour the point. There is no room for the reader to make up his or her own mind. You are constantly directed what to think and which conclusions to draw.

 

For me, the biggest drawback about this book, however, is not the polemic but the uneasy mixture of the real and the fantastical. Towards the end of the book the story becomes more and more surreal as people begin disappearing and  their murders are investigated by a clownish policeman who is obsessed with his media image. Finally giant spiders emerge from excavations under the house of the super-rich family for whom Rachel works and begin dragging people off to their underground lair. It's deliberately left unclear whether this is real or simply the product of Rachel's exhausted imagination. I found this ambivalence something of a cop out.

 

The tone of the book veers between the sententious and the farcical  and that's an uncomfortable combination. There are parts that are genuinely funny and parts that are intellectually engaging but they are all wrapped up in a kind of structural whimsy as the novel takes on the form of the narratives being studied by the characters Rachel encounters.  Coe is playing with form here in a way that is certainly clever but which nonetheless left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed..