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the complete review - fiction
The Terrible Privacy
of Maxwell Sim
general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author
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B+ : an entertaining read, if largely too predictable in its construction
See our review for fuller assessment.
Generally think it's not among his best work, but parts are solid; very mixed (but generally negative) feelings about the 'twist' at the end
From the Reviews:
- "The book's structure is elaborate, even dizzying. (...) Throughout the novel, Coe is eager to capture The Way We Live Now, incorporating all manner of our current modes of distraction, aggravation, and communication, from scouting out cafés via Google Maps to falling in love with the voice of your GPS interface." - Ed Park, Bookforum
- "It is a compelling, poignant read but occasionally flounders under the weight of too many untidy subplots." - Sara Vilkomerson, Entertainment Weekly
- "Jonathan Coe a une écriture très poétique: cet ouvrage, assez réussi, nous explique la détresse humaine face à de l'incompréhension! L'auteur nous livre avec beaucoup d'humour les facettes de la société actuelle, individualiste et rongée par le pouvoir de l'argent. Chaque personnage est habilement décrit, leur apparition dans le récit marque à chaque fois une nouvelle étape pour Max." - Florence Berthaud, L'Express
- "For most of the novel, Coe’s satirical eye is as dependable as ever. (...) The doggedly underdoggish narration is also a small triumph: it isn’t easy to make a boring narrator tell an interesting story, but Max’s relentless small-time honesty about his Prufrockian failures of nerve are largely engrossing. At times, however, the mechanism creaks." - Tim Martin, Financial Times
- "Jonathan Coe's ninth novel is such a sprawling mess of a book, a hodge-podge of picaresque plotting, shifting modes and voices, postmodern intervention and questionably humorous social observation that it comes as a relief when his narrator addresses us directly, near the novel's close (.....) (D)espite its clunkiness and crazed over-elaboration, it somehow manages to be exceptionally moving -- to tell us something about loneliness, failure and the inability to cope that we haven't quite read before." - Alex Clark, The Guardian
- "At its most entertaining, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a parable about the feeling many now have of not being in control of their own story. What mitigates this is Coe's fondness for inserting playful metatexts" - John Lichfield, The Independent
- "Coe has been accused of being lit-lite, but it takes real panache to write with such flowing comedic ease; his pacing throughout is superb and delivers realistic dialogue and, hence, believable characters. (...) A seriously misjudged meta-fictional ending apart, the author has delivered another hypnotic read." - Robert Epstein, Independent on Sunday
- "(A) smart if occasionally obvious satire of materialism and modern life (...) Coe is a funny writer, and it's a testament to his skill with character that for all of his hero's maddening faults and failures, Sim never wears out his welcome. In searching for biting laughs, parts of the book feel overwritten to the point of stretching plausibility." - Chris Barton, The Los Angeles Times
- "The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is, among other things, an examination of what it is like to be alone in the early 21st century. It is a book about loneliness, in other words, and about the peculiar shapes into which technology can bend our experience of being solitary." - Jonathan Derbyshire, New Statesman
- "But modernity is not the culprit responsible for Max’s misery, despite his sophomoric fulminations against the banking system and the political establishment. He fails to attain even a semblance of contentment because he fails to endeavor, because his self-pity amounts to paralysis. (...) Certain moments might attempt to honor the Pinterian promise of a skewed cosmos, of a nervous and pernicious absurdity, but instead of delivering a drama as twistedly dynamic as Pinter’s best work, Coe errs on the side of earnestness, embraces the sentimental and quotidian." - William Giraldi, The New York Times Book Review
- "(M)issteps are inevitable when the terrain is as rocky and uncharted as Coe's, and his attempts at surveying it are admirable." - The New Yorker
- "As the tale unfolds, unfortunately, Maxwell Sim's story becomes implausible and what began as a sharp picture of the emptiness of modern life ends up becoming vacuous." - Jeremy Paxman, The Observer
- "For all of Max's blandness, his journey is anything but, taking us from Australia back to London to a road trip to north England and the Shetland Islands, into the heart of madness. Like a fumbling contemporary Quixote, he is our guide across this landscape. (...) Some of the coincidences, however, stretch one's capacity to believe, and though toward the end, Coe skids off course, you forgive him the missteps because his authorial sleight of hand keeps delighting and mischievously surprising. Whether nuances of the ending work or not, Coe leaves the reader uncomfortably engaged with the consequence of Max's terrible privacy, an unbearable loneliness that I would wager many of us share in this globalized world of greater and greater connectedness in which we are anything but connected." - Martha McPhee, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Some of it doesn’t work; Max’s breakdown, when it comes, seems sudden and forced, and the conclusion takes the novel, and Max himself, in a direction which is interesting but not a hundred per cent plausible. As a whole, though, it is enjoyable -- not as scathing and weighty as What a Carve Up!, but at times wrenchingly perceptive about sadness." - Simon Baker, The Spectator
- "The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is 'so sad. So very, very sad.’ However, it is also cunningly plotted, extremely well-written and very, very funny." - Mark Sanderson, The Telegraph
- "This, Jonathan Coe’s ninth novel, is a picaresque, poignant odyssey that plays (somewhat cruelly) with our conceptions of fiction. The metatextuality is deft and well played -- until the end. (...) (H)is metatextuality gets the better of him: he finishes with a weary raspberry to the reader. I can’t give it away, but it was that which makes it stop short of being a masterpiece." - Philip Womack, The Telegraph
- "With The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, Coe has undertaken to write the life of a bore from the bore’s point of view (at one point, in the book’s best passage, the hero appears to bore someone literally to death) as his life unravels and he sets off on a journey of uncomfortable discovery. (...) Jonathan Coe, acclaimed and admired, seems to have unwritten his novel in the act of writing it, plunging into a canyon like Wile. E. Coyote when he discovers that his tightrope only has one end secured." - Sean O'Brien, Times Literary Supplement
- "The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a traveling-salesman novel written on cruise control." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
- "But the poignant elements of poor Max’s journey of self-discovery are frequently overwhelmed by Coe’s postmodern tics, the kind of cerebral gags one might tolerate from a much younger writer. (...) Worse, the novel’s satire smells stale." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post
- "Dieser Roman ist ein echtes Kunststück. Ein Unterhaltungsroman der besten Sorte, der zu keinem Zeitpunkt seine Leichtigkeit verliert und trotzdem seine Figuren nicht an den Klamauk verrät. Ein Buch, das aus den gegenwärtigen Verhältnissen heraus erzählt, aber nicht die Aufdringlichkeit eines gesellschaftlichen Lehrstücks verströmt, sondern psychische Erosionen aus den Veränderungen der äußeren Verhältnisse geradezu zwingend ableitet." - Christoph Schröder, Die Zeit
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:
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim begins with a brief newspaper article, dated 9 March 2009, describing the circumstances Maxwell Sim found himself in a few days earlier, while the novel proper then begins on Valentine's Day, 2009 and proceeds chronologically from there.
The newspaper article makes clear what went wrong over the next three weeks after 14 February, and would seem to take the wind out of some of the narrative's sails: it's quite clear how Maxwell is going to wind up.
Indeed, what's remarkable about The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is how predictable so much of it is, with so many of the set pieces along the way -- the various episodes describing Maxwell's various stations -- also coming to conclusions that we could foresee.
Of course, this is because Coe presents them this way (as the omnipotent author he could have just as easily upended expectations every step of the way), and that opening newspaper article is surely meant to make clear from the very first that Coe is not just aware of the predictable course of his narrative, but that he wants to make sure the reader is as well.
And while this predictability is part of his game there is more to that game as well: the book goes more than full circle, and instead of ending around 9 March (as readers may have expected) it continues for a few more weeks: the events at the beginning of March turn out not to have been the conclusion of Maxwell's story, but only its nadir.
And while even after that much of the story is rounded off predictably, Coe does add a rather unexpected twist in finishing Maxwell and his story off (though whether the intrusion of the device he chooses -- in such an otherwise predictable narrative -- is wise is certainly debatable).
Maxwell Sim is forty-eight and finds himself rather alone.
His wife left him recently, taking their near-teen daughter with her; he's been on sick leave (for clinical depression) from his job for half a year; he's lost contact with most of his friends; and while the book opens with him visiting his father in Australia (a trip his wife had arranged for him), they've never communicated very well either and don't on this trip either.
He does have more than seventy friends on 'Facebook', though none that qualifies as a friend in the traditional sense -- and the one he'd need.
Maxwell narrates his story, and from the beginning he attempts to reach out to people in the hopes of making an actual connection.
It begins in a restaurant on Valentine's Day and continues on his flight back home.
The first attempts are (predictable) failures, but then he runs into a young woman in the Singapore airport, Poppy, and rather hits it off with her.
(Her unusual job is an amusing one, and involves sound recordings, but like so much else in the novel this is a blatant gimmick, a plot-device that might as well come with an asterisk ('alert: plot device'): the reader knows immediately to expect that sound recording to be played somewhere down the line (and it also is entirely obvious at what point that will happen, once Coe begins to set the stage for it).)
Poppy is too tired to talk at length on the flight, but raves to Maxwell about her uncle Clive and the great time they always have together.
There's also one great story she wants to share with Maxwell, and conveniently Uncle Clive wrote it all up in a letter and while Poppy sleeps Maxwell can read it on her laptop.
This is one of several narratives by other characters that are inserted into Maxwell's account; most have directly to do with Maxwell (a story by his wife, a report by the sister of one of his (former) close friends, an autobiographical account by his father), but this one is about Donald Crowhurst, the real-life figure who, in 1968, participated in a round-the-world solo sailing race but faked the whole thing and went mad when circumstances conspired to make it inevitable that his fraud would be discovered.
Rather than try to sail around the world, Crowhurst merely 'hid' on the open ocean (in relatively safe waters) -- something still possible in those times.
Maxwell has high hopes for his relationship with Poppy but finds out soon enough he misread the situation (though he doesn't figure out entirely what he misread -- Coe makes clear from the first that Maxwell is wary of digging too deep, whether in others or himself, and clearly means to suggest that that is one of his problems; indeed, once he digs (or once the hole has been dug for him, the curtain lifted) it all becomes (rather to easily) crystal clear).
Returning to England, Maxwell has to decide whether or not he wants to return to his old job.
A new opportunity also presents itself -- to work for a new toothbrush company -- and, despite all the warning signs (practically telegraphed in all caps), Maxwell decides that's what he wants to do.
His first assignment -- before he even has the job proper -- is to participate in an ad campaign they're launching, to prove that: 'We Reach Furthest', sending sales reps out to "the four extreme inhabited points of the United Kingdom", and making a two-tiered race out of it, with prizes for the one who is fastest as well as the one who is the most fuel-efficient (in the rented Priuses they are to drive).
The parallels to
the race Crowhurst participated in are, of course, obvious, and with Maxwell headed to Unst in the Shetland Islands the possibilities of him finding himself adrift ... inevitable.
(And, well, we know from the newspaper article that opened the book exactly how things will turn out.)
It takes a while, but eventually even Maxwell realizes:
I don't know how it's happened, but I seem to be turning into Donald Crowhurst.
That's who I'm about to become.
Call it fate, call it pre-destination, call it whatever you like, but it looks like I have no choice in the matter.
It's going to happen whether I like it or not.
Yes, it looks that way, doesn't it ?
And readers might wonder why Coe is being so blatant about it: there's no subtlety to the book's predictability -- indeed, it's so obvious that there's no need for Maxwell to state the obvious.
But Coe, of course, has something else (or more) in mind.
Along the way north Maxwell makes several stops, including visiting his estranged wife and texting (but otherwise hard to communicate with) daughter, as well as picking up something from his father's old flat.
He reads various documents along the way, which shine more of a light on how he came to be the person he is -- even if he can't put together all the pieces yet.
For someone who complains of being so solitary Maxwell actually is in frequent and often rather warm human contact.
He does develop a special relationship with his car's on-board navigational guidance system -- whom he names 'Emma' -- but, while very funny, this seems rather forced, and rather out of character.
Indeed, the novel's biggest problem is that Maxwell isn't really an ideal example of a man lost in modern society, cut off from all human contact: he finds company (though admittedly not the connection he seeks) nearly everywhere he turns -- and arguably his failure to connect is largely due to his unwillingness to meet anyone half-way.
Typical is the way he and his father get along: "If either of us disagrees with the other, or takes offence, we simply retreat into a wounded silence -- which has been known to last, in some instances, for several years".
Disappointingly, once Maxwell has the key -- i.e. figures out (or rather: is told) what's 'wrong' with him -- everything falls magically, happily into place.
Maxwell's disconnect had nothing to do with contemporary society and technology, but rather a far more fundamental issue he hadn't worked his way to or through.
(Coe does not make a very convincing case that this would really have held him so far back; it feels like a rather cheap excuse, a pop-psychology fall-back.)
In closing, the book takes one more surprising turn, which throws a new light on the artifice of it all -- and on Maxwell's sense that with everything that happens and has happened, "I have no choice in the matter".
It's an appropriate close, and excuses and explains the pointedly predictable nature of the narrative all along -- and yet it's not entirely satisfying, another too-easy way out.
An author can always snap his fingers and command his characters to do his bidding, regardless what he demands of them; here one wishes that, here and there, Coe had a lighter, more sensitive touch with his powers.
If almost entirely predictable (as it is, on purpose), The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is nevertheless quite an enjoyable read.
Coe writes well and even if few of his episodes are fresh they're still entertainingly presented.
It's an odd and not entirely satisfying book, but it is good entertainment.
- M.A.Orthofer, 27 March 2011
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The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim:
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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© 2011-2023 the complete review
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