Maxwell Sim seems to have hit rock bottom. Estranged from his father, newly divorced, unable to communicate with his only daughter, he realises that while he may have 74 friends on Facebook, there is nobody in the world with whom he can actually share his problems.
Then a business proposition comes his way - a strange exercise in corporate PR that will require him to spend a week driving from London to a remote retail outlet on the Shetland Isles. Setting out with an open mind, good intentions and a friendly voice on his SatNav for company, Maxwell finds that this journey soon takes a more serious turn....
©2010 Jonathan Coe (P)2010 BBC Audiobooks Ltd
If you've read Coe's previous fiction, you know that the novel preceding this one, "The Rain Before It Falls", was a departure from all his earlier work in having very little humor; instead it was an elegaic story about memory, family secrets, and how we piece together other people's stories. "The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim" shares all of those themes but restores the comedy: plenty of moments in this novel are demonically funny, though usually more in the ironic mode than laugh-out-loud. (Although Sim's romance with his satnav, aka GPS, is pretty hilarious.) Fans of Coe's earlier fiction should enjoy this one, and for new readers this is a good one to start with.
The narrator and main character, Maxwell Sim, starts off as such a sad sack—or schlemiel, or sorry sod, depending on your idiom—that he's a bit painful to travel along with at first. But Colin Buchanan's narrative voice is energetic enough that Sim never becomes boring. (Buchanan, who is Scottish, does a good job with the variety of northern, Midland, Southern English and Australian accents of the novel's main characters.)
The novel has a somewhat unexpected happy ending--well, mostly happy--and a puzzlingly self-indulgent little epilogue that Coe should probably have left off and that knocks the fifth star off my rating.
Listening to his book is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. I like the way old memoirs found in the attic, seemingly unrelated events and people gradually fall into place to form a whole picture at the conclusion. Unexpected ending is a must-be in Coe's novels so I anticipated one here as well. But I believe that even if I had spent ages trying to figure that one out I wouldn't have come up with the missing piece.
Maxwell Sim is who Adrian Mole could be at 48. Naive almost to the point of childishness, low on self-esteem and "on the rebound" (for years now). Both have a comic trait to them but tragicomic is an adjective that would characterize Sim better (although there is a sort of a happy ending). His life is so mundane and his attempts to change it so pathetic that maybe one could not even call him that. Yet at the same time you cannot help liking him (clever how Coe constructs his characters) because being the narrator he keeps trying to convice you he is you pal. Most of the thoughts he offers reflect those of an average man living at the end of the 1st decade of the 21th century (eg. "these bankers and their bonuses, it's outrageous", "I have a million friends on Facebook and hardly anybody I could talk to, whatever happened to eye-to-eye contact these days?" etc) and are never controversial.
There was one thread I found a little bothersome. While on a journey to Shetlands Sim starts to have conversations with his sat nav. It was funny for the first hour but as the journey continued and he kept that up it began to get a bit annoying. Especially that with a couple of exceptions "continue on the current motorway" was the only response he could extract from the machine. There was a point at which I was on the brink of deciding to rate the book 2/6 because of this, but then, fortunately, his car battery went flat.
I think this is two books in one novel. One a quite funny critique of modern Britain and its town centre sameness and the ultimate loneliness of modern society. The other, better book, is about attaching meaning to meaningless random events and eventually finding some sort of resolution to your problems.
This was a brilliantly written and very funny book; interwoven with a real story (I checked it out on the internet) and even with the author making an appearance; I did not guess the twist (although there where plenty of clues) until the very end. The chapter where Maxwell goes from interacting playfully with his sat-nav to an all out argument as his mind dwindles is a classic. A must listen
"jonathan coe is one of the best writers around"
This book draws you into a deep and intense story through humour and incident. Highly recomended,
"Nice idea, if a little overcooked"
I was told this book was all about books in an age of social media which it isn't at all. Hi ho. I enjoyed it though. The protagonist's doomed journey to Shetland is sweet and the impossible contrived situations are fun.
I'm not sure what I think of the closing passage where the Maxwell meets the author. It's been done a few times before (Douglas Coupland in J-Pod, Kurt Vonnegut in... Is it Breakfast of Champions...? Jostein Gaarder in Sophie's World spring to mind.) and as a get-out from a book it felt just a couple of levels up from "he woke up and found it was all a dream". Still, it's funny and I cared about the characters and sometimes that's all you need.
I don't often comment on the narrator unless they are very good or very bad. In this case, he was very good. He understood the book, read it credibly, even had the right access. A great choice!
"Good but not great"
An entertaining book about one man's mundane collapsing life, covering ordinary life that i don't feel is written about enough. I felt it was spoilt somewhat by the end which seemed self-indulgent - a kind of clever modern author's version of 'and then I woke up'. Worth a listen if you like Jonathan Coe, but i think 'What A Carve Up', 'The Rotters Club' and 'The Closed Circle' are better.
Really original. I enjoyed every minute
"you can smile but Sad too"
kept me engaged but a little too real - strange ending
"The terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim"
If I'd read all but the last chapter of this book, I would probably have given it 4 stars. It portrayed a sympathetic portrait of a lonely, socially inept individual, and as it revealed more and more about him and the reasons for his condition, I became increasingly engrossed. The well crafted narrative built towards a gripping and page-turning ending. Everything was falling into place, the loose ends were being tied up and I was looking forward to the conclusion. Then the author suddenly came up with a bizarre non-sequitur of an ending that seemed to bear little or no relation to the preceding story. It left me feeling like I'd eaten a delicious meal followed by a bar of soap for dessert.
"Good - but he has done better"
I really enjoyed Colin Buchanan's excellent readings of 'The Rotters Club' and 'The Closed Circle' and this was more of the same. It is a excellent story sensitively told and the reading and charcterisation is superb. It is a much slighter story than 'The Rotter's Club' and I thought that the final coda was not necessary. I thoroughly enjoyed this - and would recommend it.
"Brilliantly inventive and entertaining."
I hated being interrupted from listening to this, and at every spare moment continued with it. Jonathan Coe is a fantastic writer, and Colin Buchanan's reading was amazingly good. I think I'll listen to it all over again!
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