Interviews March 2002

Fast Times at King William's High

Fast Times at King William's High

A talk with the author of The Rotters' Club, a darkly humorous story of coming-of-age in 1970s Birmingham, England

The Rotters' Club
by Jonathan Coe
432 pages, $24.95

Benjamin Trotter, the teenaged protagonist in Jonathan Coe's new novel, The Rotters' Club, awakens in a closet after his first drunken romp with a girl from school. As he bumbles through the awkward and groggy morning after, attempting to piece together the previous evening, he is horrified to remember that he had previously lambasted the girl's acting performance in the school newspaper. She had not forgotten. "This time last year," the girl explains upon leaving, "when I was in Othello, you said that I radiated 'all the erotic allure and raw sexual energy of a comatose mullet.' Now—where did I leave my coat?" Needless to say, this is not a match meant to last.

Jonathan Coe's humor, said to carry the torch of fellow British writers P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, percolates through all of his writing and is often set off by the dark political and social landscape in which his stories take place. Wily plots, a postmodernist bent, and a disdain for all things Thatcher provide varying degrees of grist for Coe's satirical mill. In a 1994 novel, The Winshaw Legacy, Coe depicted a grotesquely corrupt and powerful family involved in everything from selling arms-technology to Saddam Hussein to the large-scale mistreatment of farm animals. And in The House of Sleep (1997) a mad psychologist seeks to eradicate the need for slumber, while his former girlfriend, who is narcoleptic, tries to distinguish her dreams from reality. The Rotters' Club takes place in Birmingham, England, and depicts a notorious IRA pub bombing, the decline of Old Labour, the rise of the National Front, the Southall race-riots, lay-offs at the Longbridge car plant, and the period where avant-garde "prog rock" yielded to punk. Benjamin Trotter's high school, King William's, serves as a microcosm of Birmingham's larger society, replete with journalistic punditry, racism, and politics.

A native of Birmingham, Coe knows first-hand what it meant to be an adolescent there during the 1970s, and he admits a likeness to Ben Trotter (nicknamed Bent Rotter by his classmates)—a kid who isn't as overtly political as his friends and who remains relatively passive and detached, with a tendency to think deeply and personally about the relationships and circumstances that affect him. Like Trotter, Coe had the misfortune of getting good enough grades and being well-enough behaved to be appointed school prefect—the most dreaded of all distinctions. Coe's sympathy for his adolescent characters prevents him from trivializing their yearnings, their disproportionately mammoth crises, and their overpowering schoolboy crushes. Coe clearly respects his characters, and one finishes the novel without being quite ready to part with them. Fortunately, Coe has a linked novel in progress, so readers can see how well King William's has prepared them for life in the 1990s and the dot-com boom.

Jonathan Coe has written six novels and is the recipient of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for the most original comic writing.

I interviewed Coe by e-mail.

—Jessica Murphy

Jonathan Coe
Jonathan Coe   

Both The Winshaw Legacy or What a Carve Up and The Rotters' Club could be described as political novels, but in the latter you switched your narrators from the grotesque and corrupt Winshaws, who often used politics to their own advantage, to adolescents (in all their awkward glory), who are often trying to figure out where they stand. How have these different narrators affected the way you have introduced the political and historical context? Why did you choose to portray the seventies through the eyes of adolescents?

Actually the narrative viewpoints of the two novels are not so different. Some of The Winshaw Legacy is told from the point of view of the Winshaws themselves, but mostly it's narrated by Michael Owen, and Michael himself is still living a kind of delayed adolescence. In fact he's extremely close to the character of Benjamin in The Rotters' Club—and both of them are very close to my (younger) self. I'm attracted to somewhat passive central characters who are basically confused by the world around them, because that describes most of the people I know—including me. For some reason we want to identify with "heroes" in fiction, but very few of us are heroic in real life. In both novels, the relationship between the political and personal narratives is quite similar: both show how unsuspecting young men, essentially apolitical in outlook, come to realise that politics cannot be kept at a distance from their everyday lives. The difference is that The Winshaw Legacy shows this within the space of one novel (albeit a long and complex one), whereas readers of The Rotters' Club will have to wait for the second volume of the diptych—entitled The Closed Circle—to find out the truth behind some of the political events in which Benjamin is involved.

In an interview with Penguin UK you said, "It's very hard to get the balance between the political and the personal right in a novel." Does there always have to be a political element to your writing? Why is this balance important?

There doesn't have to be a political element—there's not much politics in The House of Sleep, for instance, or indeed in my first and third novels, which currently aren't available in the States. In fact, to point out a curious feature, my odd-numbered novels (The Accidental Woman, The Dwarves of Death, The House of Sleep) have little politics in them, whereas the even-numbered ones (A Touch of Love, The Winshaw Legacy, The Rotters' Club) are all political to a greater or lesser degree. Each of my novels tends to be a reaction against the previous one, so having 'done' politics I like to revert to something a little more enclosed and introspective. In the political ones the theme is always the relationship between individuals and larger social movements—so clearly there is a balance to be struck there. People read novels to be made to care about (imaginary) individuals, so that has to be the real focus of my attention. Meanwhile, the politics has to be authentic and detailed but not too obtrusive.

Despite the grave nature of many of the events during the 1970s in Birmingham (the IRA pub bombing, the Southall riots, the strikes) and the serious nature of the emotional lives of these characters, an ever-present humor and wit bubbles to the surface of The Rotters' Club. Why is humor important to your writing?

Humour is simply something I can't keep out of my writing, any more than I can keep it out of my conversation. (I seem, however, to be quite good at keeping it out of my interviews.) Sometimes I think it would be nice if I could write without humour. In Britain, for instance, they don't give you any of the major prizes if you put jokes in your books: there are literary thought-police trained to detect this kind of thing, like sniffer dogs at airports. I used to think there was a paradox here in terms of my own thinking, because some of my favorite novelists are people like Robert Musil and Thomas Mann, who are not widely thought of as humorous writers. But as I've gotten older and reread them, I've realised that there is a tremendous dry, austere comedy in their novels. So now I genuinely believe that there are no good novels without jokes in them.

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Jessica Murphy Moo

Jessica Murphy, a former Atlantic staff editor, is the 2006-2007 Milton Center writing fellow in Seattle, Washington. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and her fiction is forthcoming in Memorious magazine.

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