This feels like a good moment for a "state-of-the-nation" novel. There are 235 days and counting until the EU Withdrawal Bill comes into effect and we leave the European Union for good, so what better time to make sense of how we got here? And who better to show us than the brilliant Jonathan Coe? Middle England opens in 2010 and follows a loosely connected cast of characters in London and the Midlands over eight years of immense change. Fans of The Rotters' Club and its sequel The Closed Circle will recognise some characters returning here (Benjamin Trotter, his sister Lois, et al) but this works very well as a standalone. It is properly laugh-out-loud funny, especially the scenes between political journalist Doug and his contact Nigel Ives who, at the beginning of the novel, exudes shiny confidence as the new coalition government's deputy assistant director of communications, and by the end is dishevelled and ranting about David Cameron. But it is also incisive and brilliant about our divided country and the deep chasms revealed by the vote to leave. Do not miss....
Coe has been telling us all along about the sentimental delusions of the English, and poking fun at the idea of a wholesome collective identity, which never really held up under fire... Middle England is the novel about Brexit we need, but perhaps don’t especially want: it’s hard to imagine a reader of any politics who won’t be disconcerted at some point while reading it, and pressed to reassess their assumptions... Coe finely conjures, and helps the reader understand, that anger which may or may not transform ... into the sort of racism and xenophobia which was fomented in the run-up to the vote.
It’s natural to talk about the themes and arguments of a novel like this, but the point must also be made that Middle England is much more than a treatment of public affairs, not a succession of opinion page columns. On the contrary, it has all the human interest which led DH Lawrence to call the novel “the Great Book of Life”. Coe can make you smile, sigh, laugh; he has abundant sympathy for his characters, even those, like Ian’s mother, whose attitudes and opinions may be deplorable to him.
Coe’s writing is as smoothly accomplished as ever. His comic set pieces – funerals, dinners, clown fights – and scenes capturing the affectionate and ridiculous sex of middle age, and a relationship between a journalist and a Yes Minister-style government adviser, are very funny.
Yet this is also a surprisingly sentimental book, beginning and ending with Benjamin listening wistfully to Shirley Collins’s song “Adieu to Old England”, which is not to its disadvantage. It is an autumnal novel, and a sad one: poignant about the passing of time, the wishing for what has vanished, the decades lost to obscure hatreds, misplaced loves and unsatisfactory marriages – and about what, washing up on the brink of old age, we’re left with and what we can or can’t make of it. That a river, or two, runs through it is no accident.
Panoramic, satirical, nostalgic, sentimental; all sobriquets... each of them made somehow faintly damning... the problem of ambivalence becomes a puzzle. What is it that he means to do?... Coe’s fondness for what he suggests is a peculiarly British attachment to this kind of nonsense winds its way through the heart of Middle England... Coe subtly reinforces one of Middle England’s key questions: what is it that binds us? And is it enough?... We can never believe that Coe is endorsing the rage that a handful of his characters nurture... but we are certainly invited to understand it.
Tragicomedy is perhaps the only viable medium for a novel about Brexit, and Jonathan Coe brings his usual lightness of touch to a subject that could make an author come over bitter and humourless. His affectionately witty attitude to our human foibles is always uplifting, even when the politically divisive subject matter is morbidly depressing...That’s what Middle England is really about: the losses of middle age. It’s about being in your fifties — Coe is 57 — and realising that you’re leaving the country of your youth behind because that world simply doesn’t exist any more. Coe’s unflagging commitment to recording British life as it really is combines with his sensitive evocation of middle-aged angst, to make this an absorbing homage to things that change and things that stay the same.
Jonathan Coe writes compelling, humane and funny novels, but you sometimes suspect he wants to write more audacious ones. He has a long-standing interest in formally experimental writers — Flann O’Brien and B. S. Johnson are heroes — but it’s an interest that has never really become full-blown influence. Though The Rotter’s Club (2001) — our first introduction to some of the characters who populate Middle England — contains a 13,000-word-long sentence and a wonderfully complicated scene in which a husband and wife have a misdirected conversation (he completing a crossword; she reading a love letter from one of her son’s teachers) as they each consult a dictionary, for the most part experimentalism is confined to the surface of Coe’s novels. This is not to say that there isn’t profound pleasure to be found in them, but it’s of a kind that confirms rather than challenges your prejudices...The prose is slick and precise and you always feel in safe hands. Coe is a master of transitions — using paragraph and section breaks to cut the action — and his set-pieces are perfect miniatures, stylishly engineered. But reading Middle England can seem like wandering around a model village: you marvel at the extraordinary attention to detail, but feel unsettled by the lack of life.
The effect is not entirely satisfactory. It sometimes feels as though Coe has simply tipped the contents of his notebook straight into the novel. These sections of the book suffer from a shortcoming that afflicts any work of fiction that hews so closely to very recent events: they feel like barely sublimated polemic. This wasn’t as much of a problem in The Rotters’ Club, where the historical frame is sufficiently distant that we never forget what one character calls the “ungodly strangeness” of the period, the “weird things that were happening all the time”... But if Middle England were simply a fictionalised howl of aggrieved Remainer-dom, it would be considerably less arresting than it actually is. What is interesting about Coe — and what is interesting about this novel and the other two in the trilogy — is not so much his flight from Englishness as his ambivalent embrace of it.
Middle England echoes the work of the elder Amis in its willingness to call one character a ‘leading light’ and a ‘doyenne’ in the same sentence. The line comes not in dialogue, where such vocabulary might be true to a specific character, but as part of Coe’s omniscient narration, in which, on other occasions, we visit a ‘picture-postcard village’ and people have ‘bitten the bullet’ and failed ‘to cut much ice’. Coe is also coy about sex, always favouring the formulation ‘they made love’, although, as Updike argued and demonstrated, the precise ways in which people approach sex are character-revealing.
Such low-key prose may be the reason that Coe, despite much critical admiration, has always been overlooked when it comes to the Booker Prize. In what may be a cathartic fictionalisation of Coe’s pain, Middle England features a famous Booker-winning novelist, Lionel Hampshire (in another tremendous set piece, taking place on a cultural cruise), and sees Benjamin’s novel long-listed for the award.
Coe, though, far outranks many Booker winners in his talent for characterisation and captivating narrative. Even though we always broadly know what will happen in Britain during the period described, Coe keeps us eager to learn exactly how it occurs for Benjamin, Sophie, Culpepper and the rest. Let’s hope Coe keeps returning to these characters.
Middle England is extremely funny – and it’s funny in a way that’s cathartic. If Coe comes across as a Remoaner licking his wounds, he always manages to cover his back, undercutting a rant or a moment of sentimentality with a wink at the reader.
There is a delicious irony in Coe taking aim at the past. His comedies provide such orgiastic surges of nostalgia, they have the addictive appeal of long-running soap operas. Benjamin and his grammar school classmates were born out of Coe’s most nostalgic novel. And both The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle abound in rose-tinted liberal hankering for a golden age of social democracy that perhaps never really existed.
The meta-joke of his fiction is that it cautions against nostalgia while simultaneously serving it up in great helpings. His characters are regularly reunited with former classmates, teachers, colleagues and lovers; his best dialogue tends to emerge from the teasing banter between old friends. He even allows characters from one story to show up later as cameos in another.
Middle England is a full-blooded state-of-the-nation novel, and it brings us bang up to date... Middle England left me very much in two minds. Its weaknesses are easy enough to describe; in various respects, the book is palpably feeble. Coe relies on journalese, and tells you little you didn’t know if you have read the occasional newspaper in the past decade... As a depiction of Brexit, it is systematically biased (which isn’t necessarily a problem) and culpably unoriginal (which is)... The novel’s merits are slightly more mysterious. Like much of Coe’s work, it is absorbing and thoroughly enjoyable: a gentle comedy of manners, executed with his trademark fluency, good humour and bracing lack of pretension. He has a gift for daft comedy and gentle farce, which is amusing even when it is obvious, and he writes feelingly about the world of Middle England: garden centres, A-roads and “planned engineering works” on the railways. The plot, although inconsequential, is strangely mesmerising. I can only say that I read it very happily, while thinking, often enough: “This is soapy drivel.”
Most of Coe’s skills are out in force. Unlike many serious novelists, he is an extraordinarily deft plotter, able to interweave a wide variety of different stories with only occasional over-reliance on coincidence. His prose is simple and unshowy. The book zips along: you think you’ve read 20 pages and find you’ve read 40. And unlike most popular novelists, he tackles big, ambitious themes, in this case, the effect of politics on people’s lives, and political opinions on personal relations...At the same time, Coe’s treatment of the Brexit debate strikes me as the novel’s main weakness. His own bias is so resolutely and nakedly Remain that it infects his characters, and undermines the necessary illusion that they have thoughts independent of their creator...Of all the art forms, the great glory of the novel is its ability to convey the complexity of human beings. On the other hand, it is in the nature of politics, particularly the binary politics of a referendum, to render everything simply in black and white. This is where Coe falls down. He not only fails to resolve the contradictions of the political novel, but reinforces them with stereotypes.
In Middle England, Coe shows an understanding of this country that goes beyond what most Cabinet ministers can muster. Through characters who span the political spectrum, he subtly builds a picture that exposes the cracks in society — highlighting illogical prejudices and their devastating political effect. He is a master of satire but pokes fun subtly, without ever being cruel, biting or blatant... We see how Brexit impacts on everything from marriages to male pride... There are plenty of moving human moments and a contender for funniest sex scene of the year, involving a hard object in the dark and two middle-aged people who haven’t been naked with another person in a long time. Benjamin Trotter mentions so many songs that you wish the book came with a soundtrack... Coe doesn’t offer any straightforward solutions for what he calls “the hysteria gripping the British people” but somehow his light, funny writing makes you feel better. This book is a welcome tonic for uncertain times.