Book review: Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

In his notes about the movie What a Whopper!, reclusive, obsessive Roger notes the film is a “sort of sequel” and tags it with ‘Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is oblique”. That also sums up this book’s relationship to Coe’s peerless satire of Thatcher era Britain, What a Carve Up! In that postmodern classic, obscure writer Michael Owen was hired to write the biography of the villainous Winshaw family, who had managed to infiltrate numerous arms of British life: politics, the media, high finance, art collecting, arms dealing. They ended up meeting a grisly end, but like some hydra they’re back in Number 11, dominating Blair’s Britain and beyond.

A savagely, sourly funny writer who structures his novels like Escher paintings, this time round Coe takes aim at the dismantling of the welfare state, the poisonousness of social media and the ultimately facile nature of political satire, all within a panoramic framework where plot paths diverge and re-join in unexpected ways and seemingly irrelevant details become major turning points.

The gothic prelude sees childhood friends Rachel and Alison have a creepy encounter in the woods and find a tarot card showing a grotesque spider woman. In that same formative summer, Rachel becomes haunted by the suspicious death of biological warfare expert David Kelly, a kind of generational loss of innocence moment.

The two girls go their separate ways, divided by a social media snafu. While Rachel ends up in Oxford, Alison makes her way in the art world, painting homeless people dressed as royalty. Meanwhile, Alison’s mother Val, a one-hit wonder pop star, tries to revive her fading fame on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, but finds only humiliation, the format being a poisonous reinstatement of the class system and public abasement.

The Winshaws make a more successful gambit for renewed fame in the art world with a prize in their name. Its first incarnation was to honour an artwork in any format, though that increasingly abstract idea was abandoned after one year it went to ‘That smell at your grandma’s house when you open a biscuit tin that hasn’t been opened in years’. Instead, they decide to pit the various existing prizes against each other and the result turns into a delicious satire of the prestige industry.

They’re also returning to prominence in the media with Josephine convincing her father to give her a newspaper column, though she needs some advice from her callous parent on the nuances of writing rage bait. When she tries to finger a “black, one-legged lesbian” as the straw man in one piece, he advises her that nobody would believe such a person exists. Simply casting the villain as Muslim, he suggests, will have the desired effect in provoking an outraged response.

Josephine’s right-wing ranting becomes a favourite topic for stand-up comedians the nation over, who promptly start disappearing. Enter the earnest PC Nathan Pilbeam, a bookish detective digging deep into Freudian psychology to uncover clues about the crimes. It’s a fine comic sequence in a career studded with them.

Coe has never been as darkly paranoid as he is here and he seems energised to produce some of his most brilliantly caustic satire. Eventually though, he seems as defeated as Alison watching her mother slide back into an abusive relationship: “Inside she was letting out a long, deep sigh of resignation. It was going to happen all over again”. In this waking nightmare, Britain is drunk-dialling its ex, and Coe is the friend slumped beside them at the bar, watching helplessly.

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