21 thoughts on “NUMBER 11 or Tales that Witness Madness – Jonathan Coe

  1. “It’s about how 140 characters can make fools of us all.”

    Beware inadvertent spoilers that sometimes accrue when one is real-time reviewing…



    1 – 3

    “…until she reached the limit of her parabola, hung suspended there for the briefest of moments, whirled and then dived again, rushing down towards the coveted lump of meat with preternatural speed and precision,…”

    Feeling my way, so far, a cross between a Famous Five childhood adventure and King’s Dark Tower, plus a reference to a real news item in early noughties UK,
    Intriguing and captivating. Plus a racial undercurrent?

  2. 4 – 6

    “The Mad Bird Woman.”

    It is interesting how 2003 (and its news accoutrements, including one strikingly public discovery of a dead body) has become almost like seasoned history as taught in school classrooms, and here we have two school girls, in a sort of possibly news-connected and mysterious adventure, on the cusp of adulthood…one acting more adult than the other..staying with the latter’s grandparents whilst their two mothers are having a ‘singles’ holiday abroad, with all that such holidays entail?
    On the approaching brink of the Brexit syndrome, too.
    No sign of Trump, of course… yet?

  3. 7 – 11 (end of The Black Tower)

    “Alison ignored this objection, and played her trump card.”
    The bit about Bates.
    This has been the knowhow or Green Knowe of 2003 – Nameless Alley, or an evolving dual path of social history and fiction, cockles and Chinamen, and characters first seen as Psycho because of their name, and later as something more friendly by sheltering foreignness when foreignness was already in GK Chesterton and would be nasty persona non grata in fledgling Brexit Britain (but note that this novel was first published in 2015) – a card game that needs a Trump to change fortunes – but for the best? Or just the matching of spiders? Foreignness and colour.
    A children’s Blyton mystery, and something far more serious, where good is bad, and bad is good, as we head into not a new Middle Ages but the first Mixed ones. The inter-costal muscles of communication fledgling with MySpace in 2003? Or was that a bit later?
    I sneaked a look at the start of the next section and glimpsed the date 2011. We shall see.
    On another level this is a compelling, well-written mystery so far, with elements of a David Mitchell and something else I cannot quite put my finger on.


    From this book’s earlier “loving irritation” to its “classic humblebrag”…
    Some gems to elucidate the poignancy of life.
    Here we learn a second thing about the number 11, but how strong does your bladder have to be to circle in the city bus ring route several times, just to keep warm and unlonely?
    Our characters have evolved into 2011 and beyond, into post banking crisis ‘austerity’, and into Snapchat. Life is a slow motion Snapchat, I reckon. But Alison (we now learn about her physical disability and sexual diversity) has a once semi-famous pop-singing mother who screams, I sense, ‘I am a celebrity, get me back in there!’
    Reality Tv is another form of Snapchat, too.
    Only novels in real handleable books can aspire to retain a tractable durability, even if they are ABOUT transience.
    Any Anthony Gormley sculpture, notwithstanding.

  5. 2. (End of The Comeback)

    “Choose a path and set me free, to beyond and yonder.”

    One of the most compulsively, genuinely, foully horrific, yet hilarious, passages in all literature, involving a time calibration as trajectory of a famous Reality TV Show and its tortures, in parallel with real-time viewers watching elsewhere, in another time zone, all subject to ‘fake news’ editing. Tweets, too, and all the Internet can throw at you and yours.
    Insects, and Incest.
    And Alison’s mother’s song is sooooooo utterly beautiful, the poignancy is unbearable. Then back to the city circling bus.
    Sheer reading experience. I wonder where this Consequences Game of a novel is next going to take me?


    Pages 127 – 151
    “…Anyway, this one was that every generation has a moment when they lose their innocence. Their political innocence.”

    I am enticed back to this book more and more as I readily read further into it, but I do try to eke it out, to savour each Consequence as it emerges. Now the latest Consequence is the rôle of the Loch Ness Monster – and the inconsistently-used privacy settings of Facebook. We are following a character we have known from the beginning now within the viewpoint of an academic setting and a lecturer whose husband – who collected, inter alios, pre-recorded VHS tapes – has died. This durable character, once a friend of Alison, is invited by the lecturer (for what motive?) to the Cotswolds, the site of that particular loss of political innocence we encountered, in this book, back in 2003.

  7. Pages 151 – 177 (end of The Crystal Garden)

    “It wasn’t just a hankering for childhood. It was bigger than that. It was to do with what the country was like — or what he thought it had been like — in the sixties and seventies.”

    From earlier ‘loving irritation’, ‘classic humblebrag’, ‘paranoid fiction’ and the ethos of ‘whistleblowers’ via the Loch Ness Monster and collected, sometimes trashy, films about such monsters…we now reach a ‘nostalgia’ and a Brexit-like yearning for British old days that I imagine this 2015 published book is prophesying … reaching it via a magical-memory-of-‘wonder’-unrequited film (now lost) that once filled a gap on ATV’s afternoon schedules some time during the 1960s. A ‘wonder’ that is truly wonderful in this section of the book, despite the long narrative info-dumps, and reminds me of HG Wells’ Door in the Wall, and of Le Grand Meulnes, and Sarban, and … and ironically a key phrase is now ‘monetising wonder’. That this book is doing for its author?
    The element of ‘routine’ in the 1960s is also well depicted as based on my own only-child family experience of the Fifties and Sixties, same meal every day, that I, too, yearned then and yearn now for a Consequences Game that transcends the need for choice, and the outcome of yearning and seeking for the lost film by the lecturer’s husband is a perfect example of my gestalting fiction into truth, the connection of yearnings and death, a convulsive coincidence, that again involves the no. 11.
    Consequences and Connections.


    Pages 179 – 197

    “The criminal does not act in a political vacuum.”

    “To solve an English crime, committed by an English criminal, one must contemplate the condition of England itself.”

    The Consequences Game seems to have reached a genuine non-sequitur? But, if so, an engaging, witty one, where we learn about a cultivated police constable as well as the backstory of a female pundit that, in this 2015 published book, seems to be an accurate prophecy of someone like Katy Hopkins, both brilliantly characterised, and the former tries to solve the apparently separate murders of two stand-up comedians in different areas by his own methods of gestalt real-time reviewing…and emailing Scotland Yard from his branch constabulary.
    Nicknames at the Nick. The Bedroom Tax, notwithstanding.

  9. Pages 198 – 209

    “Nathan lets out a whistle of alarm. ‘An explosive situation,’ he said.”

    …”thesis art” vs “ambiguity”, essence vs quintessence, electronic blogs like this one, a summary of the philosophy of laughter, then as a shorted circuit or explosion, romance with a swaddled figure, and modern day food banks.
    Fiction is a sort of food bank, I reckon. Think about it.
    Meanwhile, the gathering into a gestalt all the clues as to pastential murder or potential murder, seems to be leading to an awards dinner where this fiction’s ‘Katy Hopkins’ will be attending…the tables numbered.
    Still eking out the reading of this wonderful Consequences Game of a quilted narration.

  10. On this hardback book’s earlier Page 11 – “Where are we going now? How are we going to get out?”

    Pages 210 – 230 (end of The Winshaw Prize)

    “vinegar punch”

    These scenes at the awards dinner may be too philosophically slapstick, absurdist, laughter-inducing for some readers’ tastes, but they worked. At first I thought the eclectic-catholic Winshaw award was to be a Tontine (a running theme for my Gestalt Real-Time Reviews) but, instead, it turned out to be more the Best of the Bests. Ingenious! – and what happened in the middle of each dining-table I will not spoil here. Nor will I divulge the coincidence involved with the ‘Katy Hopkins’ character and one of the dinner’s waitresses, as they shared a smoke outside.
    I will merely mention the mention of the clearance of “unexploded ordnance (or Explosive Remnants of War)” when factored into the earlier short-circuited explosions of laughter philosophy.
    A whodunnit to die for. A potential Murder Dinner.
    And at one point, I was sure that Lucinda was planning to go to bed with her table’s menu, while Nathan slept on the sofa!
    (Also cf the father and daughter here in this 2015 published book with Trump and Ivanka.)


    1 – 3

    “Other times I think that, just as a certain famous Romanian used to suck the blood from his victims’ necks, now it is money itself that has begun to drain the life out of this great city.”

    In London with Livia the Romanian, and from Beverley to South Africa with Rachel, and back again to Beverley and Rachel’s grandparents …but what happens when Rachel is back again, I have yet to read. Rachel, who threads this book, is employed as a tutor to an Etonian, boy on safari with his parents and twin sisters, Rachel with an intriguing job description, and a what else? I love meandering in this book, guessing. And this review will not give you the answers; only the book itself can do that. If that.
    Dog-walking for a living, another door in the wall, and this final (longer) section headed with the title, I somehow recall, of a trashy film about the Loch Ness monster? None of that can give you even a clue.
    Beautiful descriptions and human observations, Graham Greene-like, when we are in South Africa. And not to quote Rachel…

    “There are no lions in this park, none at all. All we saw today were those stupid elephants again.”

  12. 4

    “Tests had shown up a large cancerous tumour in her grandfather’s colon.”

    Perhaps that is this section’s ‘whopper’?
    Meanwhile, Rachel is re-employed by the Gunns as a tutor, this time for the twin girls, this time down in London. Another phoned method of entry – and a door through a wall in a near building-site? Yet I cannot yet gather whether the building works are a sign of property speculation, speculation gone wrong, as lot of Trump’s once did? And the employer and father is the man-called-Gunn and his wife, Lady Gunn, has the forename Madiana (I learnt earlier in this book that she was once a fashion model and came from Kazakhstan) – tinges of Melania? – and a property with a bath encrusted with ‘fake diamonds’…
    I am God-smacked.
    VERY intrigued to see what happens next. It is sure I will not tell you.

  13. 5 – 6

    “…it’s part of the same move to express everything in monetary terms.”

    … which seems to be the on-going theme, Cf the monetising of wonder and of other abstractions, as Rachel connects with the itemised previous tropes and characters, via the magic door of fiction, towards a gestalt — items such as obscure British films and not-so-obscure ones like Quatermass and the Pit, the overbearing modern ‘choice’ of entertainment and art as compared to what was available in the past (I remember the days when there was one channel on Tv and they had an hour’s interval at 6 pm so that parents could get their children to bed), and the ‘joke’ (here in a possibly non-unionised lap-dancing club) and more.

    “…and we estimate that the discovery of these human remains today probably adds about £1.2 million to the value of London as a whole.”

  14. 7 – 14

    “‘He’s using invisibility as a metaphor,’ said Rachel, […]
    ‘Sounds s as if he spotted a real gap in the market there.'”

    I cannot do justice here to the accretively miraculous gestalt of this book’s previous perceived Connections and Consequences, loose cannons and other objective-correlatives.
    I’ll draw out just one – Madiana’s insistence on 11 floors being dug as part of the building works in Chapter 11 of this section, a pit like that of Quatermass, where a connective spider lurks. Scenes worthy of any great work of hyper-imaginative literature or horror genre or shape-shifting SF. Not only The Invisible Man or The Midwich Cuckoos. Or George Osborne in another No. 11.
    Scenes worthy of an art gallery upon a sudden chance visit to Lausanne, too. Breathtaking passages.
    Oh yes, I must not forget the story of Alison and the poignancy of food banks and residual ordnance, and a dog-walker as cellist, Trumpish private jets, Freddie Francis as an exponent of Hammer Horror as well as Tax Management, and more, much more, in this miraculously accretive gestalt upon our hollow or pitted world. Meanwhile, I ache, literally ache, for Val’s jungle song to be exhumed. No reason, sadly, to believe it will be. Nicest, remember, not Insect.
    Simple linear equations upon my return from Brobdingnag.

  15. 15 – 20

    “The Scottish Tourist Board have asked them to come up and put a price on the Loch Ness Monster.”

    “the taste of her childhood; the taste of home;”

    “threads and webs had been strung up everywhere.”

    The three quotes as pre-cursors of the couple of years after this book was published, that yearning for the lost past, as well as the shape-shifters and their Internet webs, objective-correlatives of sentiment and Trump-Brexit or the realities of those who share the interconnections of the 140 characters in this book?
    We even have the caped crusader and his philosophical-cultivated, not Dr. Watson-like, companion. And that Rachel shares her surname with the author of The Invisible Man, as she does for real.
    The lair that is No. 11 Downing Street?
    Or Bucharest?
    A bath encrusted with fake diamonds?
    Or where?
    Dig as deep as you can in its words.
    A book that connects and contrasts, by seemingly haphazard consequences, the unfair with the unfair, say, Sir Gilbert with Alison. Quantitative easing with obscure or trashy tropes. Connections with Consequences. Ultimately a game called life.
    At least this great book adds a bit of human fairness back, as well as entertains the reader with both rumbustiousness and mind-provoking nuances.


  16. Pingback: Middle England – Jonathan Coe | DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS

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