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Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

Number 11 (2015)

by Jonathan Coe

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193986,952 (3.62)5
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    Swing Time by Zadie Smith (hairball)
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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up, aka The Winshaw Legacy is a satire about life in Thatcher-era Great Britain. This book is a sequel of sorts in which Coe takes on life in Great Britain in the 2000's. However, I don't think you have to have read What A Carve Up before reading Number 11. I have read both, and I enjoyed both, but have the same complaints about both of them. Like the story in What a Carve Up, the events in Number 11 seem too episodic and unconnected to a whole, although ultimately Coe manages to loosely tie everything together. And as in What a Carve Up, Number 11 ultimately goes way over the top, lapsing into a campy horror story with giant underground spiders devouring the evil.

As noted, the book consists of a series of vignettes, beginning when Alison and Rachel as young girls encounter a "mad birdwoman" and ultimately an illegal immigrant laborer. One of my favorite parts involved Alison's mother Val, a has-been former celebrity who in an attempt to revive her career agrees to appear in a "Survivor"-like reality tv show. The contrast between what actually happened and how the editors of the show made certain events appear to happen, is hilarious. There's also a part about the Winshaw Prize-the "prize of prizes," as it searches for ever more obscure prizes to award its prize to. There's a crime section, involving murders of standup comedians, a bumbling Scotland Yard inspector, and a computer-savvy upstart. And then there is the conservative newspaper columnist (a Winshaw) whose rants against "one-legged, black, lesbian women on benefits" comes true.

The take-downs of the new wealthy are particularly funny. Rachel as a grown-up becomes the nanny/tutor to the children of Sir Gilbert Gunn, one such magnate. She is initially charged with ensuring that his oldest son be made to appear "normal" and less entitled, so that he can get into Oxford. This involves eye-opening visits to food banks and Birmingham. Rachel is given quarters in the Gunn's Chelsea mansion, which is being renovated to excavate an 11 story cellar in which amenities such as an in-home cinema and a swimming pool will be installed.

As I said, Coe sometimes seems to use his characters and the plot as vehicles to support his satire, rather than vice versa. And the book isn't successful as a cohesive novel. But it is enjoyable.

3 stars ( )
  arubabookwoman | Jul 14, 2017 |
Jonathan Coe is always entertaining, so it is no surprise that this book is a page-turner. It is also an incisive satire that says much about the strangeness and inequality at the heart of modern Britain.

This is a sequel to his earlier book What a Carve Up!, which was part satire of Thatcherite values and part homage to 50s and 60s British film comedies. In the earlier book, the Winshaw family caricatured many of the more venal aspects of the society of the day in the same way as the D'Ascoynes in Kind Hearts and Coronets, and met the same fate.

This book has a more complicated structure, almost a loosely linked set of five novellas, exploring a similar set of characters who are effectively heirs of the original Winshaws, and meting out the same form of justice to them. The situations Coe places them in allow him to explore aspects of modern society that did not exist at the time of the previous book, such as social media, reality TV, the abuse of migrant workers, the way police procedure is influenced by the media and the lives and building aspirations of London's super-rich elite. He also introduces a further set of film references, notably "Quatermass and the Pit" and "What a Whopper", which was an apparently risible sequel to the "What a Carve Up!" film involving the Loch Ness Monster.

This makes for a very enjoyable read, but it has its flaws. Some of the comedy is just too blunt and simplistic, the ending seems very silly (in a way that was only just about forgiveable because of the Quatermass reference), and the characters are often superficial and symbolic (for example the one-legged black lesbian on benefits who is constructed as a perfect tabloid target), but as Coe himself in a postscript that explains many of the inspirations (advertised as an exclusive for the Waterstones paperback edition), this book was partly intended as a tribute to the late David Nobbs, and in that he has undoubtedly succeeded. ( )
  bodachliath | Nov 15, 2016 |
I love Jonathan Coe's books, they are wonderfully quirky without losing readability, but I did fear that this one might put me off, by telling me what I should think about the 2000s, in the same way "What A Carve Up" - good as it was - told me what I should think about the 1980s. It did set out to do that, with a series of interconnected stories , featuring some characters related to those in "What a Carve Up", but in amongst the preachy bits was some top notch storytelling. I liked 'The Crystal Garden' the best - the way it made the reader care about something fairly insignificant was really clever, and if there was a message there, it was a subtle one. As always, the humour was excellent too: the shortlist for the Winshaw Prize, for example.

Things I didn't like: the slow start and the slightly unbelievable ten year olds that populated it. One of them used the phrase "Good heavens" at one point, which I don't think even 10 year old members of the royal family have used for the last hundred years. Also, the shopping list of "issues" that were worked in, not in such a way as to promote debate, but in such a way as to reinforce stereotypes. It will play well with people who think all bankers are evil and the word "Tory" should always be joined to the word "scum". To be fair, he is ensuring his readership sits directly in the middle of the Twitter demographic, and who could blame him for that. ( )
  jayne_charles | Oct 31, 2016 |
Through five distinct periods, Jonathan Coe follows the lives of Alison and Rachel, two friends from Leeds who we first encounter in 2003, shortly after the death of David Kelly on Harrowdown Hill. They are spending a week visiting Rachel’s grandparents in Beverly. But their lives are changed immeasurably by events within the house at Number 11 Needless Alley. And so it goes. A few years later we encounter Alison again and this time another number 11 seems to play a significant part in her ongoing story. In each period the number 11 applies to something different. At times, either Alison or Rachel are the main characters. But at others they are just bit players. However, Coe has an intricate web that he is weaving that will bring nearly every character, large or small, into the fold. And in the course of his weaving he’ll canvass some of the highs and lows of middle class and upper-middle class Britain in the new millennium.

Coe is often touted as one of the supreme satirists in British literature. But, except in a few brief set-pieces, this is not satire. Certainly he has an agenda and without doubt some stereotypical members of the upper-middle class come in for some ridicule and judgement. But this is weak satire. It is rather more like polemic. Which is fine as it goes, but can’t be expected to carry the richness or subtlety that satire typically manifests. That said, I did enjoy much of the book. I just didn’t feel as though I got much of a nuanced view of Britain. The characters did not come to life or seem fully real. And so I’m left with a bit of a meh response. Maybe it would work better for another reader, but as for me, not recommended. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Sep 17, 2016 |
This state-of-the-nation novel about 21st-century Britain is something of a sequel to What a Carve Up. It's told through five interconnected vignettes that circle around Rachel and her childhood friend Alison and the different paths their lives take. There are some very funny elements to the novel, which is unfailingly well written. However, as in What a Carve Up (The Winshaw Legacy) before it, Coe has trouble sticking the ending. The ending of Number 11 felt, unfortunately, very silly compared to what could have been. A flawed, but compelling, satire of contemporary Britain. ( )
  sansmerci | Jul 4, 2016 |
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'Because there comes a point, you know, Michael' - he leaned forward and pointed at him with the syringe - 'there comes a point, where greed and madness become practically indistinguishable. One and the same thing, you might almost say. And there comes another point, where the willingness to tolerate greed, and to live alongside it, and even to assist it, becomes a sort of madness too.'

Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up! (1994)
In memory of
David Nobbs,
who showed me the way
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The round tower soared up, black and glistening, against the slate grey of a late-October sky.
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… aveva spinto studenti e insegnanti a riferirsi a lei … con l'appellativo di «Severe Miss Givings», in altre parole «Forti Dubbi».
Freud … sosteneva che il riso dà piacere perché crea un risparmio di dispendio psichico … prende dell'energia e la LIBERA o la DISSIPA, disattivandola. E dunque qual è l'implicazione per l'umorismo di tipo “politico” …? Esattamente questa, e cioè che l'umorismo politico è l'esatto opposto dell'azione politica. Anzi di più, è il suo nemico mortale. Ogni volta che ridiamo della venalità di un politico corrotto, dell'avidità di un operatore finanziario, degli sfoghi fasulli di un editorialista di destra, li lasciamo liberi di continuare. La RABBIA che dovremmo sentire nei loro confronti, quella che potrebbe spingerci ad AGIRE, si disperde sotto forma di RISO.
… direttore della Stercus Television … proprietario della Recktall Brown Gallery …
… fu deciso che il Premio Winshaw … non dovesse essere appesantito da regole e vincoli di sorta. Di conseguenza, la selezione finale si orientò su un libro di racconti, un singolo di hip-hop, un video di un artista consistente in slogan anticapitalisti scritti con il muco, una nuova specie di mela creata da un frutticultore dell'Herefordshire e la gabbia delle giraffe del Chester Zoo. Questa politica fu seguita per un po' e culminò nella famosa edizione del 2001, quando il premio fu assegnato al «particolare odore che si sente quando, andando a trovare la nonna, si apre una scatola di biscotti rimasta vuota per cinque anni».
Helke considerava le parole, come del resto tutto quello che possedeva, un bene prezioso che non doveva essere dilapidato per oliare gli ingranaggi dei rapporti sociali.
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Book description
Number 11 is a novel about the secret relationship between our inner world and the world that surrounds us, and how this relationship affects us.
For what left behind the war and the end of innocence.
About how comedy is rippling with politics, but also how comedy, rather, wins.
For life in a city where bankers need cinemas in their basements, while in the nearby street there are other people who need food banks to survive.
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This is a novel about the hundreds of tiny connections between the public and private worlds and how they affect us all.It's about the legacy of war and the end of innocence.It's about how comedy and politics are battling it out and comedy might have won.It's about how 140 characters can make fools of us all.… (more)

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