So here's something I did not know when I picked up Jonathan Coe's newest novel, Number 11. That phrase, "Number 11," is a kind of shorthand, a phrase that instantly means (to any British person, or people more worldly than me) the home of the chancellor of the exchequer. Something else I didn't know? What the chancellor of the exchequer is. As a matter of fact, I'm still not entirely clear on that.
But the Number 11 is also a bus route around Birmingham. The number of novels Coe has written. And the address of a certain house in a certain small town wherein lives the Mad Bird Woman. It is also the number of basement floors being dug beneath a mansion in London where terrible things happen.
The number 11 is many things in this looping, self-referential, partly insane and deeply strange novel which, in a way, is a sequel to Coe's 1994 satire of British culture and politics, The Winshaw Legacy and, in another way, is also an internally-referenced satire of its own existence — as when some lines of criticism are found in the papers of Roger, a dead academic, who, in writing notes about a particularly awful film, a quasi-sequel called What A Whopper! (which, of course, is also the title of one of the sections of Coe's novel) sneers "sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is oblique, slippery."
Confused yet? Good. Because yes, everything about Number 11 is oblique and slippery. Not only if you know very little about British cabinet positions or Birmingham public transit schedules, but just in its totality. It jumps narrators constantly. And styles — at one point a gothic mystery, at another, a detective story with all the trappings. It carries over and continues the stories of a couple of surviving characters from The Winshaw Legacy but deals primarily with new ones — mostly two girls, Rachel and Alison, who meet at 10 years old and remain friends (sometimes estranged, sometimes not) as they age and mature, acting as Coe's witnesses to the social, political and economic wasting of Britain at the hands of the powerful and the dumb.
As a whole novel, it is strongest when it settles for a moment — as with an extended piece about the distorting lens of reality TV, or the story of Roger the dead academic and his ultimately fatal quest for a lost short film called The Crystal Garden which represents, to him, a piece of childhood innocence gone missing — but its purpose, seemingly, is to act as a an open-choked literary shotgun, doing the maximum amount of satirical damage to the widest possible swath of targets.
As such, Coe tells a broad tale about modern Britain falling to pieces. Beginning with Rachel and Alison having an oblique discussion of the mysterious death of U.K. weapons expert David Kelly, he paints a progressively bleaker and more damned image of the country as the two grow up. Of all the many (many) great runs of words Coe puts together, this is the one I found most heartbreaking, and most revealing of what Number 11, in all its ADHD twitchiness, is attempting to say. It is Laura — Oxford professor, Roger's widow — talking to Rachel.
"He had this theory," said Laura.
" — Roger was full of theories, mainly I suppose because that's what he got paid for...Anyway, this one was that every generation has a moment when they lose their innocence. Their political innocence. And that's what David Kelly's death represented for our generation. Up until then, we'd been skeptical 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 anymore that we were being governed by honourable people."
Rachel says that it's sad. That losing your innocence is the worst thing that can happen to a person. But Laura disagrees: "Innocence is overrated."
And that is the hinge on which Number 11 turns — the point where childhood gives way to a very cold and ugly assessment of the world as it is, not as it once was, not a dream of how it might one day be. What follows is ridiculous by any measure (and involves, among other things, a vampire), but also black-hearted and darkly funny in the way that only well-executed satire can be. In Coe's Britain (and, to a certain extent, Britain's Britain), food banks now sprout where gardens once grew. Lies have become objective truth. The search for a better, more innocent time will only kill you. Real monsters lurk behind the facades of multi-million dollar mansions.
And in that way, maybe it's the perfect book for our time. Even here, especially now.
Whether or not you know who the chancellor of the exchequer is.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.