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You know what I love about aeroplanes? They are the last place left to us where we can be totally inaccessible.

June 5, 2011 15 comments

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe. 2010.

14 February 2009. Maxwell Sim, 48, is in Sydney, Australia. His ex-wife Caroline had booked him a plane ticket to visit his father Harold in Australia. Caroline left Max six months ago, moving from Watford to Kendal with their daughter Lucy. Their departure led Max into a depression so powerful he hasn’t been able to work for months. Max is lonely, desperately yearning for human connections. He misses physical and direct contacts with other people. He misses them so much because he has buried himself at home for the last months and also because he has never been good at it. Caroline left him because she couldn’t live with someone who likes himself so little and because of their lack of communication. Max never managed to build a close relationship with Lucy. His father Harold is like him and they never had open-hearted conversations.

So when Max observes a warm and cosy meal between an Chinese woman and her daughter in a Sydney restaurant, he finally admits to himself he’s been craving for such a bond with someone for a long time now. Things have to change.

On his flight home, he chats with Poppy who seems to understand him and makes him read a letter from her uncle Clive about Donald Crowhurst. In 1968, this amateur sailor took part in the Golden Globe Race. He left England on a brand new boat, ill-prepared. He was a fraud and knew it but could not stop the process of participating. Other people were expecting him to take this tour around the globe and when his boat encountered problems shortly after his departure, he could not face his failure and come back. He fabricated faux book entries and reported wrong positions on the radio. He disappeared and it is assumed that he committed suicide.

This story impresses Max on different levels. Why did the man choose to lie instead of facing defeat? Was it because he didn’t want to disappoint his friends and family? How did he cope with that terrible privacy on his little boat? Max wonders as he knows a fair bit about loneliness. Max is also fascinated that at the time, Crowhurst had the possibility to lie because there was no SatNav and cell phones to reveal where he really was. He gradually becomes obsessed by Crowhurst.

Back to England, after a dreadful moment of intense loneliness when he checks his mail, e-mails and Facebook account and realises he has only three meaningful messages, he meets his friend Trevor in a fancy restaurant. Trevor persuades him to join him as an employee for a small English company which launches environment-friendly toothbrushes. Max accepts to take part to the advertising campaign and starts a road-trip from Readingto the Scotland.

This road trip will give him the keys of the closed doors of his past and live him ready to open the one of his future. These keys are delivered through four personal tales: Clive, telling the story of the fake sailor; Caroline, writing a short-story about a painful event of their marriage; Alison, a childhood friend of Max’s, writing an essay about an episode of their common family holiday and Harold’s confession about Max’s conception.  

Max’s story is an opportunity for Jonathan Coe to look at our societies in a critical light. We are a society of the virtual. Relationships can be disembodied through the Internet via blogs, forums and social networks. (Hello Book Pals, how are you today?) The economy is based on services and finance, immaterial, contrary to the making of goods. Max’s road trip could be called “back to basics”: he wants physical relationships made of eye contacts, smiles and touches and he’s going to sell toothbrushes made in England.  

“Privacy”, obviously, is a key word in this book and a pure British concept just like “plaisir” is a French one. Jonathan Coe, in an interview with the French news magazine L’Express (1) said he was fascinated to discover that his translators had difficulties to translate the title of his novel because the concept of “privacy” doesn’t exist in their own language. I recently travelled to England and therefore bought a tourist guidebook. In the chapter “Understand England and Wales”, it is written: “The importance of privacy can be illustrated through houses. If public places are dedicated to socialising and dating, the house is the territory of a well defended privacy. Even very friendly meetings are seldom followed by an invitation at home. The architecture itself, be it in the suburbs or in the country, shows this need of privacy and quietness through its walls and bushes” . That was a discovery for me. According to the no-privacy granted to famous people in the British press, I thought that the concept of “vie privée” (“private life”) as opposed to “vie publique” (public life) was more French than English. But privacy seems to be something else that I struggle to grasp, something about having boundaries to keep people at arm’s lenght. I’d be grateful if someone could give me an explanation in the comments.  I understand that Internet disturbs “privacy” as strangers enter into your home.

I enjoyed this book, I thought it well crafted and thought-provoking. It’s all about frauds and forgetting who you are.

The first fraud would be England. Jonathan Coe raises questions about his country and what it has become since the 1980s. The 2008 collapse of the financial markets revealed that the chore of the country, the City,  was living on an economy that makes money out of thin air. I thought that the chapter drawing a parallelism between complicated bets on horses and market finance was fascinating. The analogy was good and I wonder if complicated financial instruments such as options really started this way. According to Jonathan Coes, by turning to services and destroying its industry, England has lost its identity.

Then the characters are frauds because they turn their back to who they are to meet other people’s expectations. They lose themselves in the process and are not well in their lives. By that I mean Harold, Clive, Caroline and of course Max.

The last fraud could be Jonathan Coe himself as a writer. At least, that’s what I thought when I read the last chapter. Not everyone can be Martin Amis. But then, Money had opened the 1980s and Thatcherism. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim closes these years of wild capitalism and deregulation after the 2008 financial crisis, sort of pointing at the failure of the system. Like Max, the country needs to reinvent itself.  

It was my first Jonathan Coe, it’s effective but I thought sometimes that the craft was too obvious for the reader. (And again I wonder, does it have something to do with Martin Amis’s style?) In the end, I could almost imagine Coe in front of a paperboard, drawing the map of the novel and the interactions between the characters and the different steps leading Max to his epiphany. It also reminded me of This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes, for the middle aged lonely character who struggles to connect to other people again and of Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland, for the exploration of loneliness. Both are better that The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim for their central character but Coe’s novel is better on the social aspects he wants to put forward.

I chose to read this book after reading Guy’s review and following the comments at the end of my review of Gut Gegen Nordwind (translated as Love Virtually)

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(1) I can’t translate the interview back, it wouldn’t be fair to Jonathan Coe. Here is the passage about “privacy”: “Le Britannique aime garder son quant-à-soi. Maintenir sa privacy, c’est partager avec les autres uniquement les aspects de soi-même que l’on veut bien partager. C’est très important dans la psyché britannique : il faut protéger avec un soin extrême son espace personnel et maintenir une forte barrière invisible autour de soi. J’ai trouvé fascinant que tous mes éditeurs étrangers aient été embarrassés par la traduction du terme. Je pensais que tout le monde partageait ce concept.

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