THE TERRIBLE PRIVACY OF MAXWELL SIM
By Jonathan Coe
Knopf, $26.95, 335 pages
”Terrible” rarely modifies “privacy” because we usually think of privacy as highly desirable and hard to achieve. But for Max, the central character of Jonathan Coe’s novel “The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim,” privacy is rather harrowing. His wife has left him and taken their daughter with her. His father has left, too, and is living in Australia. His friend Trevor has moved away. His mother is dead. He has 70 Facebook friends but knows few of them in the flesh. He gets lots of emails, stays in electronic touch on his cell-phone and has no trouble striking up casual conversations with strangers, but at the end of the day - and for much of the hours beforehand - he is alone with more privacy than anyone could want.
Readers meet Max in a Sydney restaurant. He’s been visiting his father, who as usual has been unapproachable and taciturn. Mourning this chill relationship, Max envies a Chinese woman and her daughter happily enjoying each other’s company at another table. He tries to imagine how such companionship would feel. His loneliness makes him fantasize that chance encounters presage something closer. When a gorgeous young woman called Poppy, whom he meets en route back to England, invites him to dinner, he thinks this may be the start of a romance. No such luck.
On the other hand, Poppy introduces him to the story of Donald Crowhurst, who in 1968 entered a race to sail a boat around the world single-handedly. Crowhurst was not a sailor: he was a misfit, an early computer geek, who filled his boat with electronic gear. Little of his equipment worked, and after floating round lost in the Atlantic, he returned to England a broken man.
Crowhurst’s angst is the opposite of the warmth of the Chinese woman and her daughter. Longing for some comparable joyful bonding and fearful that he could descend into Crowhurst’s lonesomeness, Max decides to re-connect with people from his earlier life. A new job requires him to drive from the south of England to northern Scotland, giving him the chance to visit the Midlands, where he grew up, travel northward to spend the evening with his wife and daughter in the Lake District, and then drive on to Edinburgh for dinner with Alison, the sister of his closest childhood friend.
Each encounter yields information about his past. Under its duress, Max spins downward as he drives away from Edinburgh, comforted only by a couple of bottles of single-malt Scotch and the reassuringly pleasant voice of his car’s GPS system.
Having elaborated this alarming and not unconvincing picture of the loneliness of lives connected only by electronic networks, Mr. Coe, who treats his nice chap of a hero with great tenderness, seems determined to let him hit bottom and then solve his problems. But Max’s problems are so intransigent that any happy resolution must seem unlikely, so as the novel nears its end, it creaks alarmingly, casting the reader’s mind back to earlier evidence of imperfect joints and seams.
For example, there’s a staginess about some of Max’s discoveries that drains conviction from them. He picks up a box of his father’s papers and finds an extraordinarily detailed record of an early relationship that proves his father never loved his mother.
Even more unlikely is the account of Donald Crowhurst that appears in a letter to Poppy from her favorite uncle. But the idea that an uncle would write 15 pages on such a topic to a niece is scarcely credible, as is the thought that she would hand over her laptop so a complete stranger could read it while she sleeps her way to Heathrow.
More believable is that Max tracks down a story by his wife that is a fictionalized version of an accident that happened on a camping trip. Max totally rejects her interpretation of the incident, implying that the story is further proof of her lack of literary talent. But later, when he reveals what actually happened, it’s hard not to feel he misled us earlier, especially as there is no significant reason for withholding the true explanation. Indeed, knowing Max’s real role in the event would deepen our understanding of his problems.
One reason why the exposition of “The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim” depends so much on interpolated documents is that Max is ever at pains to note his own inadequacies. In particular, he often insists that he knows nothing of literature, though he often refers to novels or quotes famous lines. His explanation is that he picked up some rags and tags of literary knowledge from his wife, a would-be novelist, or his father, a poet with a special love of T.S. Eliot.
There’s certainly an Eliotian wasteland quality to the virtual world that Max lives in, and his references to literature invariably are apt. It’s especially funny when he decides to name his GPS system Emma after Jane Austen’s bossy heroine. But it is just not the case that people who don’t read use literary references to illuminate experience - even when they have bookish relatives.
These flaws notwithstanding, readers will be intrigued and perhaps alarmed by Jonathan Coe’s satiric picture of disconnected lives being lived in an era billed as the Communication Age.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.