By Jonathan Coe, Viking, 532 pages, £16.99
At one point in Middle England, a couple attend a marital counselling session in which they are each asked to explain why they are so angry that their spouse voted differently from them in the EU referendum. One complains that the other, by voting leave, showed that “as a person, he’s not as open as I thought he was. That his basic model for relationships comes down to antagonism and competition, not cooperation.” Her husband answers that her remain vote made him realise she’s “very naïve”, “lives in a bubble”, and that it gives her “an attitude of moral superiority”.
The therapist’s verdict is: “What’s interesting about both of these answers is that neither of you mentioned politics. As if the referendum wasn’t about Europe at all. Maybe something much more fundamental and personal was going on. Which is why this might be a difficult problem to resolve.”
That, perhaps, is the sore point a novelist taking on Brexit as a subject might be expected to probe. There’s a truth here — that the Brexit vote was experienced and has continued to be experienced as a matter of personal identity. For a novelist, this is where the action is.
Middle England is the third novel featuring the characters from Coe’s 2001 novel The Rotters’ Club and 2004’s The Closed Circle, and sees an excellent writer making an enjoyable, absorbing and less than completely successful attempt to find the sweet spot of that sore point. The action runs from the spring of 2010 to the autumn of 2018, and the newsreel that unrolls in the background takes in Gordon Brown’s encounter with “that bigoted woman”, the coalition government, the London riots, the murder of Jo Cox, Nigel Farage’s notorious “Breaking Point” poster, the London Olympics and all the rest of it. And in that respect, of course, we know what’s going to happen because we’re living it. This is a book that foretells the present.
It also has a good deal to tell us, oddly, about geography and local transport. Coe has frequent resort to the melancholy poetry of place. On page four we read that the hero is driving “through the towns of Bridgnorth, Alveley, Quatt, Much Wenlock and Cressage”, and 40 pages later he’s taking the route in the other direction: “Cressage, Much Wenlock, Bridgnorth, Enville, Stourbridge and Hagley”. A garden centre isn’t just “midway between Shrewsbury and Birmingham”: it’s “not far from the M54 and considered such a geographical fixture that it had its own official sign on the motorway”. A pub is “tucked away in a hard-to-find corner beside the Suffolk Street Queensway in Central Birmingham”. At one point we meet characters “driving out of Birmingham along the A3400”; at another contemplating the “rail replacement service between Kettering and Nuneaton” “‘Rail replacement service’, ‘Kettering’, ‘Nuneaton’. Were there five more dispiriting words in the English (or any other) language?”
In its politics, just as in its gripes about public transport, this is a great big Centrist Dad of a novel. It lives largely in the world of the media, academia, politics and (peripherally) the City. Benjamin Trotter is a failed novelist who in late middle age finds himself longlisted for the Man Booker prize; his old friend Doug is a well-heeled centre-left newspaper columnist; his niece Sophie is a university lecturer who becomes a minor TV don. The book has a wide cast of characters, though the ones we’re invited to sympathise with are pretty much all remainers.
And yet it’s never stronger or more convincing than when it’s furthest from political events. As the novel addresses the rise of populism, for example, we meet reactionary oldies in golf clubs moaning about “political correctness”; a lunatic conspiracy theorist buttonholing a publisher with a manuscript about the EU’s “Kalergi Plan” for white genocide; a porcine chancer funding the referendum through a dodgy free-market thinktank; an elderly former car worker uncomprehendingly contemplating the site where the Longbridge plant used to be; a privileged Corbynite student lodging a complaint against a lecturer after hearing (at second hand) that they’d said something to a trans student that could be taken the wrong way. They tell us, in caricatural form, what we already know — or at least suppose we do.
One problem is that the historical scaffolding is so familiar, and yet will date so fast; this means that certain passages of exposition feel clunky. The reader in 2018 has no need to be told the following:
Jeremy Corbyn had become leader of the Labour Party in September. The surprising — even astonishing — election of this obscure but long-serving, rebellious backbencher had been seen by many, including Sophie, as a welcome sign that the party was planning to return to the principles it had abandoned under Tony Blair.
The reader in 2028 might welcome the reminder. The reader in 2038 will struggle to give a damn. The reader in 3018 may eke a PhD out of it.
To give Middle England its due, it doesn’t aim to cover everything, recognising wanly that, in drink, the conversation will broaden out “to include Brexit, Donald Trump, Syria, North Korea, Vladimir Putin, Facebook, immigration, Emmanuel Macron, the Five Star Movement and the contentious result of the Eurovision song contest in 1968”. So the American elections are dispatched, wittily, in two lines:
Finally, Benjamin said: “I don’t like Trump, do you?”
“Nope,” Charlie said. “Can’t stand the bloke.”
Benjamin nodded. With the political discussion out of the way …
And it is when the political discussion is out of the way that the novel becomes richer and less schematic. There’s Sophie’s odd-couple relationship with her driving instructor husband Ian (they met on a speed awareness course) and the way she thinks and rethinks an adulterous near-miss at the beginning of their marriage. There’s Benjamin’s relationship with his sister Lois and his long-lost schoolfriend Charlie, now working as a children’s entertainer and locked in a feud with a rival clown. And there’s Benjamin’s journey towards self-understanding and acceptance. All these are done with real style and feeling.
Coe’s writing is as smoothly accomplished as ever. His comic set pieces — funerals, dinners, clown fights — and scenes capturing the affectionate and ridiculous sex of middle age, and a relationship between a journalist and a Yes Minister-style government adviser, are very funny.
Yet this is also a surprisingly sentimental book, beginning and ending with Benjamin listening wistfully to Shirley Collins’s song Adieu to Old England, which is not to its disadvantage. It is an autumnal novel, and a sad one: poignant about the passing of time, the wishing for what has vanished, the decades lost to obscure hatreds, misplaced loves and unsatisfactory marriages — and about what, washing up on the brink of old age, we’re left with and what we can or can’t make of it. That a river, or two, runs through it is no accident.
And in this context the national stuff just sort of bubbles up. The Midlands landscape of Benjamin’s childhood, a landscape at once familiar and remembered and transformed and imaginary, is the real middle England of the novel. And what is lost and gained goes far beyond the referendum in 2016. To quote that therapist again: “Something much more fundamental and personal was going on.”
–Guardian New & Media Ltd