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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Number 11

by
Jonathan Coe


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Number 11



Title: Number 11
Author: Jonathan Coe
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015
Length: 333 pages
Availability: Number 11 - US
Number 11 - UK
Number 11 - Canada
Number 11 - India
Numéro 11 - France
Nummer 11 - Deutschland
Numero undici - Italia
El número 11 - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : low key and meandering, but an enjoyable state-of-the-nation satire

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 13/11/2015 Suzi Feay
The Guardian . 11/11/2015 Alex Clark
Independent on Sunday . 15/11/2015 Robert Epstein
London Rev. of Books . 3/3/2016 Nick Richardson
New Statesman . 26/11/2015 Erica Wagner
The Observer . 8/11/2015 Nick Cohen
The Spectator . 14/11/2015 Ruth Scurr
Sunday Times . 25/10/2015 David Mills
TLS . 25/11/2015 Kate Webb


  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel is intricately plotted, though initially the reader has to take it on trust that its stories will eventually interlock. So wide is Coe’s canvas, and so lavish his hand, that in its five disparate sections prominent and intriguing figures all but vanish, to reappear only briefly later on. (...) A richly enjoyable, densely textured and thought-provoking entertainment" - Suzi Feay, Financial Times

  • "Angry, bleak, preoccupied with establishing occult power connections to the extent that it would easily earn its place on a shelf of "paranoid fiction", Number 11 is undoubtedly a political novel. It is also an interrogation of the purposes and efficacy of humour in exposing society’s ills, and a spoof on horror B-movies" - Alex Clark, The Guardian

  • "(A) perfunctory patchwork of grievances against regimes from Blair to Cameron." - Robert Epstein, Independent on Sunday

  • "Coe hasn’t lost his ability to paint a bitingly dark portrait of society and he has moved with the times. (...) Sometimes, Coe falls prey to exposition. Characters tell tales to each other that might have been dramatised. Yet his storytellers are compelling: the novel has flaws but it catches you and won’t let go, like that sticky spider’s web." - Erica Wagner, New Statesman

  • "I yearned for Coe to show more self-confidence. (...) Coe’s postmodern back-covering would destroy the books of lesser writers. Fortunately, his many virtues make his work indestructible. No modern novelist is better at charting the precariousness of middle-class life." - Nick Cohen, The Observer

  • "Number 11 is a bitter satire on unquiet Britain: a country where food banks have become common, libraries are becoming extinct, sadistic reality TV shows dominate the media and the craze for basement conversions is literally undermining London. (...) Number 11 is not a simple sequel to What a Carve Up ! It deepens and affirms Coe’s reputation as the best English satirical novelist of our times." - Ruth Scurr, The Spectator

  • "In its conjectures, self-doubt and formal game-playing Number 11 is avowedly postmodern, yet it clings to realist ideas about common ground and the virtue of the ordinary. Similarly, it is nostalgic for the past while critical of our failure to move beyond it. (...) There are ways in which Coe’s novel resembles Kundera’s essayistic fiction, sharing an understanding of the novel tradition as one of rationalism springing from sceptical laughter. As a writer of the Left, Coe also harbours some of the same anxiety about stories put in service (a reaction to Stalinist thinking on art), rather than ones that multiply meaning." - Kate Webb, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Number 11 is a (recent-)state-of-the-(English-)nation novel, touching -- lightly but sharply -- on a wide range of modern conditions, from rising economic inequality to the state of academia and the media to the role of social media. The five-part novel ranges widely in its stories -- connected by some of the characters and unifying threads and themes, but presented more as distinct scenes-from-the-lives than a single-story-whole.
       One of the characters finds a reference to an old film, What a Whopper (a: "Lame British comedy"), wondering whether it is a sequel to the 1961 film What a Carve Up ! -- which, of course, inspired Coe's own novel, What a Carve Up ! (published in the US as The Winshaw Legacy). The connection between What a Whopper and What a Carve Up ! (both real films) is more or less limited to two actors appearing in both, leading to the notation:

Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is oblique, slippery.
       This also describes the relation of Number 11 to Coe's own What a Carve Up ! -- shades and shadows of the Winshaw family the most prominent of the overlaps between the two novels. (What a Carve Up !'s Michael Owen's book, The Winshaw Legacy, also finds a small place in Number 11 -- a character having found a copy at a charity shop.)
       Coe's mix of the self- and generally-referential is found even in the title: Number 11 is, in fact, Coe's eleventh published novel. 'Number 11' also echoes throughout the novel, in different forms. For British readers, it obviously calls first to mind 11 Downing Street, the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer -- essentially the Secretary of the Treasury (in American terms) -- i.e. the British government's money- and economy-man. This and most of the 'number 11s' in the book generally appear incidentally -- as a bus line, a storage unit, a sub-basement level, or a house at the end of the appealingly named 'Needless Alley' -- but are one of the nicely used means of unifying the novel.
       The most prominent character is Rachel, first introduced as a six-year-old, then briefly popping up in the first person in the (ominous) present-day, revealing that she is trying to gather the past in a piece of writing, then going: "back to the very beginning", the summer of 2003, when she was ten and staying with her grandparents, along with Alison, a classmate she bonds with that summer. The body of David Kelly, the UN weapons inspector who died an apparent suicide, was discovered nearby, marking a kind of end of a British innocence: the war in Iraq would never be seen quite the same way after that. Young Rachel only partially realizes that, but it is a definitive transition point in the life of the nation, and marks Rachel as well.
       The five parts of the novel each have a different focus. Some of the episodes are relatively low-key -- such as Rachel and Alison's childhood summer adventures -- but all manage to effectively use changing British conditions in the background. There are nice darker undercurrents throughout, too; Number 11 isn't quite a horror novel -- though it leans lightly on the genre -- but there's a fair bit of unsettling suspense, too.
       Other characters and story-lines include Alison's mother, a one-time one-hit wonder struggling to get by, who seems to get a second chance when there's an opportunity to fill in on a reality show. It does not go well, of course: the 'reality' in the show is predictably edited and manipulated. Rachel's Oxford tutor, Laura attracts the attention of the college Master, Lord Lucrum, when he hears the paper she is working on deals with, in part, the monetary quantification of emotion -- he perks up at the thought of: "Commodifying fear". Eventually, it is a path Laura follows, giving up old-school academia and becoming a member of an: "Institute for Quality Valuation".
       Rachel becomes a tutor for a ridiculously rich family, giving her a glimpse of how the one per cent live. Originally she's hired to teach the ultra-privileged son to come across as not quite so entitled -- an attitude now more frowned upon by the Oxford interviewers who will decide whether he gets a place; his father wants him -- at least for the purposes of the admissions interview -- to: "be able to open his mouth without sounding as though he thinks he owns the world and everything in it". Once that's accomplished, Rachel gets to stay on and tutor the younger twin sisters, allowing her to continue to see -- and to some extent participate in -- the lifestyles of the ridiculously super-rich, presented quite as ridiculously (yet largely plausibly ...) as one might expect. A nice touch: the race to the bottom in the London homes of these folk: wih no space to expand upward or outward, the only way to make grander living quarters is to add sub-levels. The family Rachel works for is going for eleven .....
       Mysterious disappearances, an up-and-coming young detective whose philosophy is that: "To solve an English crime, committed by an English criminal, one must contemplate the condition of England itself", and a variety of other characters and circumstances nicely fill out the slightly baggy novel. Coe does well with the comic and absurd -- and the slightly supernatural tinge works well too -- and there are only occasional mis-hits. Rachel and Alison's longtime breakup -- triggered by a Snapchat snafu, but implausibly not rectified by Alison's refusal to give Rachel even the smallest second hearing -- in particular is annoying. As is the too easily (if way too late) arrived-at promise:
     "So shall we never, ever do that again ?"
     "Do what ?"
     "Use social media, when we could be talking to each other."
       (Otherwise, however, Coe has good fun with the role of social media, including the viewer-reactions to Alison's mother's reality-show appearances.)
       A bit low-key and loose -- it's not a tightly-knit novel, straying rather far and wide, in characters and events -- Number 11 is good fun and certainly enjoyable reading. Coe isn't too aggressive with his satire, but he scores a lot of -- admittedly often easy -- points, and it does make for a fine state-of-the-nation novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 June 2017

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Links:

Number 11: Reviews: Jonathan Coe: Other books by Jonathan Coe under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Born in 1961, Jonathan Coe attended Cambridge and Warwick universities. He is the author of several novels.

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© 2017 the complete review

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