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Bent out of shape

The Closed Circle: A Novel; Jonathan Coe; Alfred A. Knopf: 370 pp., $26

June 19, 2005|Richard Eder | Richard Eder, former book critic for The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

Indignation has given birth to many novels, though more of them in the 19th century -- by Zola, Hugo, Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe -- than in the years since. Writers turned inward from social to psychological or domestic realism (James, Updike) to the fractured inwardness of modernism (Joyce) and to a postmodernist inwardness too ductile and indistinct to fracture (David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers).

Indignation seemed an excessively blunt force to navigate the complexities of the 20th century. (George Orwell was an exception.) Still, it was a force, though something was lost by tapping into it. To have enduring value, literature must respond to the unavowed needs of its time (unavowed because, avowed, it becomes hackwork or advertising). There was the modernist need for complexity and a rejection of the positivist pragmatics that broke down in World War I. And, later, there was a need to escape the dramatics of what the modernists had rejected.

Will indignation once again be needed by a Western culture unsure of itself, of the premises by which it is governed and the increasingly unclear nature of the forces that shape and operate those premises?

For a number of years, British writer Jonathan Coe, perhaps uniquely, has availed himself of social anger as the engine of his novels. Engines alone do not transport. To drop the metaphor: Coe is an artist of character and of his characters' stories, and he is a witty, desolately perceptive observer of the way we live now.

His "we" are the British. His "now" refers to the Thatcherite privatization (and for Coe, the corruption) of his country's political and social energies, and the acquiescence of Tony Blair's New Labor in continuing it. American readers, looking at their own recent political landscapes, may find new life in the old notion of transatlantic cousining (or in Coe's baleful view, cozening).

"The Closed Circle" follows "The Rotters' Club" as the second of a two-part work about the wavering fortunes of a half-dozen characters from their school days in the 1970s to today. It is a roman-fleuve, a structure reminiscent in part of Anthony Powell's multivolume "A Dance to the Music of Time." It is as witty and acerbic as Evelyn Waugh's war trilogy -- Coe, as I've written elsewhere, is a kind of Waugh on the left: publicly ruthless, yet finally a little more merciful to his characters.

There is no way in a short space to even begin to suggest, much less recount, the lives that engage, weave, shift and rebuild in the 30-year span of the two novels. The same principal characters play throughout, alternately coming to the fore, receding and coming forth again. It is a fugal arrangement.

Benjamin Trotter, an ebullient, immensely promising schoolboy at the start, ages into bumbling foolishness. His young affair with Cicely, a fellow student who abruptly disappears, paralyzes his imagination, ruins his marriage, clouds his energy with several near-romances and finally comes full circle when Cicely, fat, crippled and cross, reappears and he finds himself taking care of her. There is a hint of redemption, but barely: Coe keeps it on the shortest of rations.

Douglas Anderton, son of the shop steward at Birmingham's huge Leyland auto works, carries on his father's role as representative of Labor's old working-class values. He is a political columnist, the lone intransigent voice at a newspaper wedded to the accommodating New Labor line. His clashes with his bosses are a seriocomic skit; a bravura set of variations on the ability of Britain's scribbling classes to feed each other poison.

Paul, Benjamin's younger brother, is Coe's jeweled showpiece of political opportunism. As a child he shocked his liberal-minded family by flaunting his junior Thatcherite convictions. To win a parliamentary seat he joins New Labor, confident that reactionary principles disguised by bland advocacy of freeing the country's private energies are just what Blair is after. He founds the Closed Circle of the title -- a group of far-right businessmen and corporate raiders that meets clandestinely. (One of many sub-themes is neo-Fascism; an anarchic schoolboy in the first book ages into a mystical Nazi philosopher who claims to have met Osama bin Laden.)

When Paul eventually resigns his parliamentary seat because of an impending sexual scandal, there's no question that his Closed Circle friends will take care of him. The scandal is a net of secrets and reckless betrayals that shocks and wounds most of the main characters. Coe develops it with a sustained, intricate brilliance.

There are others: Malvina, Paul's passionate and injured victim; Claire, perhaps the wisest and strongest of all the schoolmates. Only rarely do Coe's thoughts about Britain's society and politics detach themselves and float in inscribed balloons above his characters' heads. Almost always they are part of their muscles, nerve-ends, sorties, morasses and extrications. These thoughts are drawn with a depth of unexpectedness. They grow and change through the book; the book ends, but they will not.

Both novels are spaciously entangling. Not hard to put down -- hard not to. We need to draw breath for the next episode, to allow the complex connections to settle, to realize on page 240, say, what was suggested 100 pages before, and to let each additional colored piece slot itself in to work its transformation. And we need to make it all last.

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