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The Rotters' Club

May 15th, 2008 (01:30 am)

I've just finished The Rotters' Club by Jonathan Coe, bought last week to celebrate the opening of The Woodstock Bookshop. I greatly appreciated the development of character as the story is told episodically, stepping through the Birmingham of the 1970s from pub bombing to picket-line crushing to impending recession, as the teenage characters grow up and start interacting with the adult world. Everyone is a witness to the unravelling, perhaps the murder, of the national myth; whether in the form of the vicious beating of the British Leyland trade unionists who travel to join the picket line at the Grunwick photo-processing plant, or the rebellion of three-fifths of embryonic prog rockers Gandalf's Pikestaff in throwing off their leading light (the book's hinge character, Benjamin Trotter) to become punk outfit The Maws of Doom; or just in the persistent undermining of the ideals of the post-war settlement by entrenched attitudes based on class antagonism and the ill-considered assumptions and prejudices of empire. I'm only a decade younger than the teenagers of the novel, and so was affected by many of the same cultural developments. The Closed Circle is the sequel, and while I intend to read it the blurb suggests that it doesn't enjoy the same perspective on the late 1990s that The Rotters' Club expresses on the earlier decade.


Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: May 15th, 2008 08:22 am (UTC)

The Maws of Doom sounds more like a goth name to me.
Sounds like an interesting read though.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 15th, 2008 10:23 am (UTC)
Horace Walpole

The band are established in the pre-goth period, really, and the name makes sense in the context of the novel.

It is an interesting read, and a good commentary on cultural and political change in 1970s Britain from one who grew up during it.

Posted by: Alice Dryden (huskyteer)
Posted at: May 15th, 2008 09:11 am (UTC)
Don Quixote

Oh, I loved this one, and The Closed Circle, but my favourite is still The House of Sleep.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 15th, 2008 10:26 am (UTC)

I'd not heard of The House of Sleep before now...

Posted by: Dewi Evans (wonderwelsh)
Posted at: May 15th, 2008 12:17 pm (UTC)

I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I would strongly urge you to read The Closed Circle. Whilst it is true that it doesn't quit manage the same feat with the late 1990's, its status as a kind of second volume to a larger novel of which The Rotter's Club is the first makes it essential reading. I'd argue that it isn't really trying to accomplish a snapshot of a particular moment in history in the same way that The Rotter's Club does (though through the character of Paul, it does sort of manage this). Rather, its focus is on the way that history is experienced by the people who are caught up in it - a theme it develops from the previous volume, but takes in an entirely new direction. The characters are largely too busy dealing with the things that happened to them in the seventies to worry too much about the events of the late nineties, so that the focus is on the ways in which a complete personal biography relates and is shaped by a wider historical context. It isn't just about the late 1990's because it couldn't be - these characters have already been buffeted by historical currents. It's incredibly moving and its ability to deal with complicated (and potentially mawkish) issues in a clear and readable manner is extraordinary.

House of Sleep is interesting, but I found that a little too... clever. It's all surface trickery with no real substance. Lots of people like it though, so what do I know? Apparently What a Carve Up is his best - though I haven't read that yet.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 15th, 2008 12:42 pm (UTC)

Thanks for these comments. I was looking at reviews of The Closed Circle on Amazon and saw that it was probably more successful than I'd first thought.

Paul is remarkable as a character in The Rotters' Club for acting as a chorus, the voice of the 1980s; his attitudes remind me of those held by most of the people with whom I was at school, one way or another.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: May 15th, 2008 10:38 pm (UTC)

"The Closed Circle" is pretty desperate, to be quite honest: it's Coe putting his boilerplate political opinions into the mouths of his characters, who consequently all sound the same. Across all of his novels, Coe is a good enough author for his political interests and obsessions to be of interest in their own right (e.g. his concern about neo-fascist cults in the UK) but in this last book they are simply overpowering.

I liked "The Rotters Club" but did feel that the pub bombing was dealt with in an extraordinarily tasteless manner - a bit of period flavour whose role was that of deus ex machina. Perhaps another case of someone who sees the world through political glasses that finds compassion for actual individuals problematic on occasions.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 15th, 2008 10:49 pm (UTC)

I didn't find the treatment of the pub bombing lacking in compassion actually; but I think that had I been Benjamin faced with Uncle Glyn's account of the English monopoly of historical evils, I'd have had more to say than "It's a point of view."