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.

In The Rotters' Club your characters are convincingly embedded in the 1970s. Did you rely on your memory and experience of the period or did you have to re-immerse yourself by doing research and looking back at pop culture and listening to prog and punk rock?

I did a fair amount of research into the political background, because—like Benjamin—I was blissfully ignorant of all that stuff at the time, being far more interested, at the tender age of sixteen, in writing the next Magic Mountain. I also kept a diary throughout 1978-79, and that was important source material, although most of what I found there was in fact far too embarrassing to put in the novel. The pop culture of that era, I regret to say, is embedded in my consciousness till the day I die: sometimes I wish I could shift it and replace it with something more useful, like a knowledge of particle physics. To summon up the names of all those forgotten prog bands, all I had to do was run my eye along the edge of my tragic record collection.

You really capture that utter sense of dread that goes along with adolescence. Benjamin can't believe his bad luck at being elected a prefect. And when he realizes that he can't find his swimming trunks and what punishment awaits him, he begins to pray for the first time. Was it difficult to go back and capture the mindset of an adolescent? What are the challenges of writing a coming-of-age novel?

As I said, I had my own adolescent diaries to draw on, which provide as harrowingly accurate a portrait of the adolescent mind as it's possible to imagine. I suppose the real challenge was not to caricature or laugh at my adolescent characters too much: their problems and dramas are mainly tiny, but I couldn't present them that way, I had to show that to these people, they were as urgent as anything that was happening in the larger political sphere. This was especially true with the love story between Benjamin and Cicely: to anyone with an adult, objective eye this is just a stupid schoolboy crush, but I couldn't allow myself to show it in that light. I had to write about it as if it were Troilus and Criseyde all over again.

You were elected to be a prefect, right?

Yes. I don't know why, because I had no air of authority at all, and even the younger boys were bigger than me. I see now in retrospect that it must have been a typing error. But, to my shame, I accepted—but I was a Tory in those days. If I hadn't been a few months too young to vote, I would certainly have voted for Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 election. Now there's a thought.

In The Rotters' Club there is Benjamin, who has a deep emotional life and who isn't committed to one political view or the other. Then there is Doug, who has dealt with less personal tragedy, but who is quite opinionated and ready to jump into the world after high school. At one point Benjamin asks, "Was the world even more complicated than he had imagined—weren't there even any arguments with only one side to them? How on earth did people like Doug keep hold of their certainties, their clearly defined, confidently held political positions, in a world like this?" What were you seeking to accomplish by portraying both character types in this novel?

Doug is an amalgam of several politically and culturally aware kids whom I knew at school; but he's also a sort of fantasy alter ego. While rereading those diaries, I became furious with my adolescent self for being so withdrawn, so bloody half-hearted about life. In one passage Doug says to Benjamin, "You won't get out there. You won't take life by the throat and give it a good old shaking. You'll never do that, will you, Benjamin? You'll never take your chances." Which is exactly the sort of thing I wish someone had said to me back in 1978. So I invented Doug to provide myself with an alternative adolescence—one in which I'd had the courage to bunk off down to London by myself and see The Clash playing live and have fantastic sex with a total stranger.

The House of Sleep, about a psychologist obsessed with sleep and about the struggles of a narcoleptic woman, seems set apart from your other novels. Its tone is more serious, more academic. What was the inspiration behind this novel? Which came first, an interest in sleeping disorders or the idea for this novel? How did your approach to this novel differ from your others?

The House of Sleep arose from the fusion of two ideas: a novel about sleep disorders, and a novel about a man who is hopelessly in love with a gay woman. The sleep disorders strand was inspired by my own sleepwalking—in fact, Sleepwalking was going to be the title of the novel, but a British novelist called Julie Myerson got there first. In any case, it turned out there was no room for sleepwalking in the book, because I got so interested in narcolepsy and insomnia and sleeptalking, or somniloquy. (Somniloquy was also going to be the title, but the publishers told me that no one would go into a bookshop and ask for a book with four syllables in the title. Sleepwalking only had three syllables, so I suppose I would have gotten away with that.) The love story is a very oblique and exaggerated retelling and embellishment of something I went through when I was a student. It had always struck me as good material for a short story—the starting point was this scene where a man has had a sex change and presents himself to the woman saying, "Here, look what I've done for you—now we can have a relationship," and she turns round and says, "Oh, that gay thing? That was just a phase I was going through." There was a kind of bleak, Hardy-esque irony about this that appealed to me. (I mean Thomas Hardy rather than Oliver Hardy—although actually the latter is the one I prefer.) But I can never do short stories, because I always want to extend them and add to them and invent more characters and back-stories, so they end up turning into novels—and that's what happened here. Incidentally, when I described this story outline to an audience in the States a few years ago, a very homophobic guy put his hand up and asked, rather bizarrely, "Why are there so many more homosexuals around now than there used to be?," and I answered, "Because they're breeding." I still regard this as one of my finer moments.

Could you speak a bit about The Rotters' Club's thirty-three-page-sentence Joycean conclusion?

Well, I wanted to write a novel that would have a rather peculiar shape, and one way of doing that was to give the different sections different time frames: I think the first one lasts about a year, the second one is more like two years, and then the original idea was to have all the events in the last section telescoped into one day. But then after writing the Danish interlude which begins the second section, I found that I had introduced this idea of the "eternal moment," the moment of emotion so intense that it seems somehow stretched and timeless. That concept actually came from an unlikely source, Henry Fielding, a very anti-sentimental writer. In Amelia one of his characters says, "There are some moments in life worth purchasing with worlds." You can tell that Fielding disapproves of this notion and is really satirising it, but I think to a more modern sensibility there is something very appealing about it. So then I thought that the whole of the last section—in which Benjamin is meditating on the extraordinary fact that he has finally lost his virginity to the girl he's been dreaming of for the last however many years—should be a celebration of one fantastic moment in his life, and writing it as a continuous sentence seemed one way of helping to convey that. It wasn't really intended as any kind of nod towards Joyce. In the last couple of pages of the book I made a tactical error by mentioning Ulysses—really just as a way of showing that Sam, the uneducated coach driver, can now read complicated novels—so a lot of people have taken this sentence as a consciously Joycean exercise. But the influence came more from a Czech novel, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, by Bohumil Hrabal. I think it was his first novel and the whole thing is one sentence, about a hundred pages long. There's a lot of Hrabal in The Rotters' Club, in fact. I offer that as a completely free piece of information to prospective thesis-writers the world over.

In all of your novels your writing makes frequent shifts from narrator to narrator, from year to year, from one narrative strain to another. Could you talk a little bit about your choice of style and your decision to put a novel together in this way?

Omniscient third-person Victorian narration is not available to us any more: we've lost confidence in that kind of authoritative voice. But I refuse just to write first-person, because it's too restricting. Also, I get bored easily while writing, and often lose confidence in the voices I'm using, so I try to switch from voice to voice as often as possible. It keeps readers on their toes as well—which they like, if you're doing it well.

Your next novel The Closed Circle will pick up with these characters in the late 1990s. Can you tell us what we should expect? Are you finding that there are any new challenges that present themselves when writing a sequel?

'Sequel' is the wrong word. It was my choice of word, but I regret it now, because it doesn't do justice to the close interrelationship between the two parts. Really we're talking about just one long novel. I've seen some American reviews which say that The Rotters' Club just fizzles out in the end, and I promise a sequel on the last page because I couldn't be bothered to finish this one properly. I can see why people might think that, but it really offends the craftsman in me. Every unresolved plot-line in The Rotters' Club will have (and has had, ever since day one of beginning work on the whole project) its conclusion in The Closed Circle. There are even some plotlines which you don't realise are unresolved in The Rotters' Club until you read The Closed Circle and find that things get explained in the second book in an entirely different way than how they appeared twenty years earlier. The idea was to have two books that existed in some kind of dialogue with each other: the second one won't just continue the first, it will actually rewrite it. That's the plan, anyway. Depends if I ever get round to finishing the damn thing, really.