Jonathan Coe: The way we live now

Jonathan Coe's tales of modern British life are international bestsellers. Now, he tells Christina Patterson, he's turned his satirical gaze on sex and the Zeitgeist
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The Independent Culture

"Appearing on the books pages is hardly going to raise his profile. Only about 10 people read them, and eight of those are the people who write them, as well." The speaker is Jonathan Coe, or at least his character, Doug Anderton, a schoolboy in The Rotters' Club and now, in Coe's new novel, The Closed Circle (Viking, £17.99), a columnist on a national newspaper.

"Appearing on the books pages is hardly going to raise his profile. Only about 10 people read them, and eight of those are the people who write them, as well." The speaker is Jonathan Coe, or at least his character, Doug Anderton, a schoolboy in The Rotters' Club and now, in Coe's new novel, The Closed Circle (Viking, £17.99), a columnist on a national newspaper.

Anderton claims to be the voice of the kind of people "who have been reading the paper for years and don't give a fuck about what kind of eyeliner Kylie Minogue uses, which is the kind of story our esteemed editor seems obsessed with". Fiercely ambitious, he awaits the announcement of the new appointment he has been promised. When it comes, he explodes. "'Political editor? No. Deputy editor? No. LITERARY editor. Do you hear me? Literary - fucking - editor. They want me to commission book reviews. They want me to spend every day putting novels into fucking Jiffy bags...'"

For those of us who spend our working lives writing for the 10, this passage could hardly fail to trigger a smile. So, um, where did he do his research? "I have several moles in other newspapers," replies Coe darkly. Well, I'm glad we got that one sorted out.

We're sitting at a lacquered pine table in the small flat he rents as an office in the Kings Road, Chelsea. It is extremely beige. It is, in fact, a little reminiscent of the Seventies, of the "brown times" so brilliantly evoked in The Rotters' Club, his bestselling novel of a rock-ridden Birmingham adolescence. If his office were to reflect his current concerns it should, perhaps, be a white Zen space or a riot of lime green and bleached blond, the result of some instant TV makeover. But Coe is no slave to fashion. What he does, with fabulous energy and brio (a favourite Coe word), is capture the Zeitgeist in all its textured glory and horror.

In What a Carve Up!, it was the Eighties, a sprawling satire featuring a trademark Coe narrator - depressed, inert, obsessed by his own failure - and the Gothically grotesque Winshaw family, representing different aspects of a decade characterised by its greed. A massive bestseller throughout Europe, it was selected last year as one of the five books that most accurately summed up the essence of life in England today.

In The Rotters' Club, it was the 1970s, of course: the era of shaggy hair and punk, Johnny Rotten and Yes, the IRA pub bombs, strikes and the demise of the socialist dream. And now, in The Closed Circle, it's the Noughties: a world in which, as the jacket blurb says, Tony Blair presides over "a superficially cool, sexed-up new version of the country", tired forty-somethings surf Friends Reunited in search of lost childhood friends and a nation eats microwaved macaroni cheese in front of the telly. In front, in fact, of a TV cookery show "so explicitly suggestive of oral sex" that the main character, Benjamin Trotter, "found himself getting an erection".

"There will be a sequel," said Coe at the end of The Rotters' Club. True to his promise, The Closed Circle returns to the lives of those Birmingham schoolboys, now middle-aged men with wives, receding hairlines and varying sized chips on their shoulders. Trotter, the aspiring teenage novelist, is now an accountant in Birmingham. He is still working on his great oeuvre, a literary-musical collage that runs to several thousand pages. Divorced from Emily, he finds himself increasingly obsessed by Malvina, a young girl he bumps into in Waterstone's. Sometimes, as a treat, he goes to stay with Doug Anderton, now married to a model who's "something big in charitable fund-raising on the Chelsea circuit". It is, we're told, his only chance "to scavenge like a starveling cat for whatever scraps he might find of the life he had once imagined himself leading".

His younger brother, Paul, is a bright young New Labour MP, keen to make his mark on the media and, of course, on Tony. He meets Malvina and gives her a job. Then he falls in love. Threatened with exposure by Anderton, he is faced with a stark choice, between political advancement and personal happiness. It's a very 21st-century tale. It's also hugely readable, touching and funny.

"The original idea," confides Coe, "was to publish them about six months apart. But," he adds with the ghost of a smile, "BS Johnson got in the way." His biography of Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant (Picador, £20), was published to rapturous reviews earlier this year. He started writing it, he says, "in about 1995" and expected it to take "about two years". In the end, it was more like seven. "I thought it was a short life and would therefore be a short book," he explains, "but I've found I can't write short books. I was learning how to do it as I went along. It was far more difficult than writing a novel."

Coe first discovered Johnson as a 13-year-old, watching, with his parents, an ITV programme called Fat Man on a Beach. Instead of the documentary they were expecting on the place in Wales where they spent their summer holidays, there was a fat man reading poetry and exhorting the watchers to "celebrate the chaos". "Let's celebrate the accidental," said Johnson. "Does that make us any the worse off? There is still love; there is still humour." Two weeks later, he killed himself.

There was something, says Coe, "about the simultaneous melancholy and joviality" of this figure that fascinated him. "Clearly, the love and humour weren't enough to take away the despair," he explains. "And for me, so far they have been. I can empathise very much," he adds quietly, "with the kinds of melancholy he was prone to."

It's the kind of tension that's central to Coe's thinking and his work: the social-realist novelist obsessed with the leading British writer of the avant-garde; the melancholic writer of comic novels; the young man who emerged from Cambridge with "a thriving, unshakeable contempt for anyone who had the temerity to attempt the writing of literature in the last 70 or 80 years", but who wrote his own first novel at eight and just carried on. A man, in fact, who was intellectually cowed by the canon but with a compulsion to write he couldn't fight. Is that, I ask, a fair assessment?

"I think that's right," he nods, "but also I think like a lot of people, and a lot of young people, I had two different personalities which I compartmentalised. My Cambridge intellectual persona was very dominant in those days and I was much given to making pronouncements about the novel." At a time when he was "basically just reading Beckett and Eliot", he remembers finding a book by David Nobbs, author of the Reginald Perrin novels and "thinking that nothing I've read in the past three years at university has given me this much pleasure. Fiction," he adds, "is also about pleasure and warmth."

Coe's own fiction certainly offers pleasure and warmth, but it is also a world in which failure features prominently. Clever boys yearn for literary fame and fortune, but end up locked away in bedsits, struggling with works of art that never see the light of day. It is, perhaps, a surprising theme for a literary novelist who's also a bestseller. "I suppose when you write," muses Coe, "then what you're writing about is possible lives. So far, touch wood, I've been able to make a go of it, but I am haunted by the thought that I might not have been able to do that, and also the memory of what it was like to feel that you were not going to. That kind of feeling never goes away."

Failure is also, he says, "more interesting to write about than success - or perhaps it's just easier to write about. I'd rather," he confides, "write about my shadow life than my real life... Maybe novelists just aren't very good at writing autobiography."

Jonathan Coe is certainly very good at writing fiction. Luckily for him, it's a process he also enjoys. "I can't imagine a more satisfying way of spending your time or of making a living," he tells me with a rare smile. "I feel tremendously lucky to be able to do it - and anxious all the time, because if I run out of readers, then I'm stumped."

Biography: Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe was born in Birmingham in 1961 and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. He completed a PhD on Henry Fielding at Warwick University, where he also taught English poetry. He worked briefly as a professional musician and then as a legal proofreader before becoming a freelance writer and journalist. He is the author of seven novels, including The Dwarves of Death, What a Carve Up!, which won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and The House of Sleep, which won the Writers' Guild Award (Best Fiction) and the Prix Medicis Etranger. His most recent novels are The Rotters' Club and its sequel, The Closed Circle (Viking, £17.99), published today. Coe is also the author of two biographies of film actors, Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart, and one of BS Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant (Picador, £20). He lives in London with his wife and daughters.

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