Number 11 is Jonathan Coe’s sequel to his prize-winning 1994 novel, What a Carve Up, which was serialised on BBC radio. Coe’s novel, The Rotters Club was also serialised on BBC2 television in 2005. Wikipedia notes that What a Carve Up “is considered an example of a post-modern novel, employing multiple narrative styles, different perspectives, movement between first- and third-person narrative voices and a highly fragmented timeline”. As one might expect, Number 11, has exactly the same qualities, and while a superficial reading may find the book to be disjointed, erratic in style and perhaps in need of a thorough edit and tidy-up, it makes perfect sense in the context of its fore-runner.
The only problem with the book is that while it will delight Jonathan Coe fans (I am one), without a knowledge of the intentions of the author (and his previous work) it may be a little bewildering. Some readers may find themselves thinking that while the book is amusing, it may not be worth the bother.
The book opens with a section called The Black Tower. An eight year old girl Rachel and her older brother Nicholas are wandering around the Yorkshire town of Beverley on a winter’s day. They are visiting their grand-parents while their mother and father are having a weekend away trying to get their marriage back-together. The go into Beverley Minster as the light is failing, and Nicholas plays a terrible trick on his sister leaving her terrified and upset.
We then move forward a number of years where we find Rachel again terrified out of her skin and writing;
I never would have imagined that, in the very midst of a city as big as this, there could be a house enfolded in such silence. For weeks, of course, I’ve been having to put up with the sound of the men working outside, underground, digging, digging, digging. But that has almost finished now, and at night, after they have gone home, the silence descends. And that’s when my imagination takes over (it is only my imagination, I have to cling to that thought), and in the darkness and the silence, I’m starting to think that I can hear things: other noises – – – I’ve not tried to write anything serious since my first year at Oxford, even though Laura, just before she left, told me that I should carry on with my writing, that she liked it, that she thought I had talent. Which meant so much, coming from her. It meant everything. Laura told me, as well, that it was very important to be organized when you write. That you should start at the beginning and tell everything in sequence.
And so the story really begins . . .
There are several sections to this book. We read of Rachel and her friend Alison returning to Beverley a few years later for a week’s holiday. This time, the visit has another undertone of horror after an encounter with “The Old Bird-Woman” who terrifies both young girls until Alison’s bravery forces them to confront their worst fears. This is interleaved with an account of the apparent suicide of weapons-inspector Dr David Kelly, as heard it on the radio news and also as interpreted by Rachel’s grandfather who is convinced that David Kelly was murdered. The merging of a these two narratives, one fantastic and another topical have a big impact on Alison as she develops an adult mind.
The next section moves forward a few more years and concerns Alison’s mother, a minor celebrity due to an earlier singing career. Val has sunk into a life of poverty and mild depression. Her job as a library assistant is coming to an end and money is short. Suddenly out of the blue she is invited onto a programme which seems to be identical to I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here and jets off to Australia. The experience is humiliating and only adds to Val’s depression and Coe seems to be highlighting the way that the media can raise some lives up very high while quite capriciously wrecking others. This is hardly a new theme, but he makes the point well.
In the third section we see Rachel now at Oxford University and paying a visit to her lecturer Laura’s home. The David Kelly theme comes up again when during a long conversation, Laura says,
Their political innocence. And that’s what David Kelly’s death represented for our generation. Up until then, we’d been sceptical about the Iraq war. We’d suspected the government wasn’t telling us the whole truth. But the day he died was the day it became absolutely clear: the whole thing stank. Suicide or murder, it didn’t really matter. A good man had died, and it was the lies surrounding the war that had killed him, one way or another. So that was it. None of us could pretend any longer that we were being governed by honourable people.
Laura’s father was obsessive about old films and we now read an extended section about his quest to find an obscure title from the 1950s. Movie history is another theme in the book and later, the final section will develop into a sort of extended B-movie as Coe plays with our heads by introducing a horror movie theme into what until then has been a relatively rational story.
He also throws in another section later on about two policemen which seems to have been taken from an old Ealing comedy. At one point a murder enquiry leads to an award dinner with bizarre elements which I can’t quite place anywhere but no doubt have a reference to a 1950’s film
From the centre of each table, a circular section was removed, like a little trap door, by hands at first invisible; and through each resulting aperture a man’s head appeared. Sixty different men’s heads, at sixty different tables. The rest of their bodies remained beneath the tables, hidden from view. A ripple of surprise and admiration went around the room. At table number 11, the head was crowned by a mop of red hair. The head swiveled around slowly through 360 degrees, and each of the twelve guests found themselves being stared at in turn by a pair of piercing green eyes framed by large, owl-like horn-rimmed spectacles. ‘Good evening,’ said the head. ‘My name is Dorian, and I will be you’re talking menu tonight. I will be here all evening, to tell you about the food, and to answer any food-related questions.
You have to take these passages as ironic, harking back to earlier television and movie themes from the 1950s and 60s. Coe is not throwing these incidents in to his novel randomly – they all hark back to some cultural reference which will be more or less obvious depending on your knowledge of early television and B-movie cinema. Be assured, there are horrors yet to come but by that stage, near the end, I was both dazzled and annoyed, having found the only way to get a handle on this book was to make notes of things that came to mind as I read it and then try to make sense of them at the end.
The number “eleven” theme is only partly-realised throughout the book and only in a seemingly random manner. This is Coe’s 11th novel. The Mad Bird Woman lives at a house numbered eleven. Rachel takes an eleven hour flight to South Africa. The London house where much of the action takes place as eleven floors (and something awful can be found in it). Alison’s mother rides round and round Sheffield on the Number 11 circular bus route. Eleven is also the number of a storage unit and also the featured table number at the prize giving.
On the whole, as a Coe-fan, I enjoyed reading this book and found it intriguing and thought-provoking. It is also annoying in various ways, perhaps a bit too clever for its own good. In order to achieve some of his objectives, Coe makes us read through some tedious passages, particularly those which are deliberately not well-written (Rachel’s twelve-year-old voice for example, or the section on the two policemen). Having said that I am glad I read it and knowing some of the background to the book has enhanced my pleasure in reading it. You can’t stay in your comfort zone all the time and this book will extend most readers’ horizons in one way or another.
Alex Clark in the Guardian wrote in his review, “Angry, bleak, preoccupied with establishing occult power connections to the extent that it would easily earn its place on a shelf of “paranoid fiction”, Number 11 is undoubtedly a political novel. It is also an interrogation of the purposes and efficacy of humour in exposing society’s ills, and a spoof on horror B-movies”.