Books June 2005

After School

Jonathan Coe's idealistic students enter the twenty-first century

Twenty years out of King William's School, in Birmingham, a group of friends first introduced in The Rotters' Club binge on "slightly morbid nostalgia" in what amounts to a cautionary tale for the precocious. Benjamin Trotter, a dreamy, dispirited accountant, has spectacularly reneged on his early promise; unhappily married, he doggedly polishes a long, unpublished manuscript and carries an increasingly embarrassing torch for the high school sweetheart who vanished without a word in the intervening years. A chronic self-saboteur, Benjamin now loses the flattering attentions of the mysterious Malvina to his younger brother, Paul, a humorless celebrity politician who allies himself with Tony Blair and acquires a reputation for commenting on "newsworthy topics: even (or perhaps especially) those in which he had no particular expertise." Paul is unrepentantly grasping, and therefore distasteful to Benjamin and his more idealistic—if arguably more hypocritical—crowd. Doug Anderton, the only leftist journalist on an increasingly New Labour paper, represents the compromises made in middle age as he offers lame excuses for enjoying his glamorous wife's wealth: "I haven't given up on the class war, you know. I'm behind enemy lines, that's all."

Messy and brimming, The Closed Circle owes nothing to minimalism's sleekly competent aesthetic. With a nineteenth-century novelist's discursiveness and reach, Coe gives us a meditation on the consequences of terrorism, an examination of the post-9/11 political zeitgeist (beneath Britain's apathy one character senses "a terrible, seething frustration"), a satire of everything from book reviewers to modern parenting, and a contemporary version of Anthony Powell's sprawling masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time, which he has acknowledged as a model. The Closed Circle would be easy to skewer for its mind-boggling coincidences and armchair analysis (rarely does Coe show when he can tell, tell, tell), but it redeems itself with boundless energy and a cheerful capaciousness. In the end Coe's protagonists emerge unscathed from his dizzying panorama, comically and endearingly wed to the shaky premises cobbled together in youth.

Elizabeth Judd is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C.
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