Book Quote:

“Mankind as you may have noticed, has become very inventive about devising new ways for people to avoid talking to each other, and I’d been taking full advantage of the recent ones. I would always send a text message rather than speak to someone on the phone. Instead of meeting with any of my friends, I would post cheerful, ironically worded status updates on Facebook, to show them all what a busy life I was leading. And presumably people had been enjoying them, because I’d got more than seventy friends on Facebook now, most of them complete strangers.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (MAR 11, 2011)

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the film The Social Network. I expect most of us know what the film is about, but for those who don’t, it’s the fictionalized account of the creation of the social networking internet site: Facebook. I liked the film a lot, and one of the things that remained with me after the credits rolled is the changing idea of friendship. In the age of the internet, what does friendship mean? It used to be that we made friends in school, at work or at university, but now many of us have friendships with people online that we’ve never actually met in person. Are these relationships real? Are they substitutes, or are they a facsimile of the “real” thing.

The authenticity of relationships is just one of the many things that trouble the protagonist of Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell SimMaxwell or Max is 48 years old, and while he struggles with many of the issues that have concerned people for decades (divorce, loneliness, and intimacy), Max seems downright confused by the additional element of social networking that’s reared its head thanks to the internet. Throughout the novel, Max confuses the real and the virtual to great comic results; he misinterprets the smallest gestures and at one point, his most significant relationship is with the female voice of his GPS navigator.

When the novel begins, Max, who’s suffering from depression and is on leave from his job, is on holiday in Australia to visit his father. Since both men have problems with intimacy, it’s a drab lonely visit. The trip is a gift from Max’s ex-wife, Caroline, and while her intentions are murky, nothing seems to come from the trip except an emphasis on Max’s isolation. Max’s return to Britain underscores this isolation. In spite of having 70 friends on Facebook, there are no messages indicating that he’s been missed, and while the junk e-mails pile in, only one appears to have been written from friendship; it’s a request from an old workmate, Trevor, to join him for a drink when he’s in town. The irony here is that the evening with Trevor is based on a job offer and is not extended from friendship at all.

As the novel continues, Max begins a journey–both literal and figurative–a journey to solve his relationship issues and a journey to the Hebrides on a mission to sell toothbrushes. On his journey north, he makes stops at various locations that are connected to his past, and the assumptions he made about his past undergo renovation. As he goes father north, Max begins to unravel as he compares his journey to the notorious and bogus around-the-world yacht trip of Donald Crowhurst, but whereas Crowhurst’s story is tragic, Max’s journey is comic.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is great fun to read, and it’s stuffed full of lively, fascinating characters who all seem to slot into Max’s problems in one way or another. He meets Poppy, a professional “adultery facilitator” –a young girl who finds plenty of work cooking up alibis for adulterers who need help covering their tracks, and Miss Erith, an elderly socialist who loathes the capitalist face of the New Britain. This is a novel that deals lightly with a number of big issues: the changing landscape of Britain, the Americanization of British society, outsourcing, and the growing isolation of the individual as many aspects of everyday life become replaced by virtual alternatives.

There are many, many hilarious scenes here as clueless Max misinterprets actions–reading romance into text messages and reading friendship into work meetings, for example. He even, at one point, assumes a female identity in order to maintain an online correspondence with his ex-wife. Lest it should seem that forty-eight-year-old Max is just “past it” when it comes to social etiquette of the internet age, as the plot continues, it’s clear that Max also misinterpreted childhood events. Max’s very real childhood experiences seem as confused and as open to interpretation as Max’s 21st century virtual encounters, and indeed this is the premise that author Jonathan Coe toys with right up to the very last pages. Max seems cartoonish at times, a sad sack at forty-eight, and while we root for Max’s epiphany, the novel’s disappointing conclusion instead pulls the novel into another direction entirely.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 8 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (March 8, 2011)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Rain Before It Falls


March 11, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Contemporary, Drift-of-Life, Humorous, Reading Guide, United Kingdom

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