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the daily review, mon., mar. 28

Author Jonathan Coe in Toronto, March 15, 2011.

A strange notion, in this era of assurances that privacy no longer exists, to consider the idea that not only does it exist, but that one can have too much of it. The terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim, the eponymous "hero" - I use the word loosely - of British writer Jonathan Coe's ninth novel, is the isolation of anyone who cannot tell the truth about his or her life; it is the awful solitariness of living a lie.

Sim, as we are introduced to him, is a 48-year-old department-store returns clerk, attempting, in his own words, to "reconnect with the world" after six months immersion in a clinical depression. Caroline, his wife of 14 years, has recently left him with their teenage daughter, "knocking me for six and turning me into a sort of involuntary hermit."

Thus far, his attempt has taken him to Australia, and a hopeless non-reunion with his emotionally distant father (his mother died years earlier). Before the novel ends, it will have taken him, literally, to the northernmost tip of the British Isles as part of an ill-advised PR campaign and, psychologically, to the furthest reaches of an apparently under-examined childhood.

Primarily a comic novelist, Coe is best known for The Rotters' Club (2001), a look at boyhood in 1970s Birmingham, and for his savaging of Thatcherite Britain in What a Carve Up! (also known as The Winshaw Legacy). Here, he has evidently intended a freewheeling picaresque - "a sort of British 'road movie,' " in his own words - with side-trip commentaries on the downfall of the economy, the homogeneity of our chain-store commercial landscape and the ludicrous disconnectedness of our up-to-the-minute plugged-in world. This is fine and promising; the difficulty is the travelling companion he has chosen.

"I was hoping to make him a kind of Everyman," Coe has written. "I wanted … to make him as ordinary as possible: an ordinary man, doing an ordinary job in an ordinary town." Well … yes. Except that, when we first meet Sim, he does not come across as a sad-sack Everyman down on his luck; he comes across as a doofus. He improves with the telling, but then we are up against Coe's method of telling, troublesome in itself with its four interwoven narratives involving Sim's father as a young man in bohemian London, two separate-though-disastrous-in-their-own-way family vacations, and the real-life tale of amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who disappeared during a sailing competition in 1968.

Crowhurst, who apparently went mad and killed himself under the strain of his solo round-the-world journey, reminds Sim in his photographs of his father but, as Coe makes all too abundantly clear, it is Sim himself who is reflected there.

As Sim takes up a position - secured by a friend - of travelling salesman for an eco-friendly toothbrush company (boar's hair bristles, European pine casing), he delves deeper and deeper into the heart of his loneliness until he is, if not literally, certainly metaphorically, round the bend, his most meaningful relationship with the voice of his global positioning system. "No disputes, no sarcasm, no questions asked," he enthuses. "… God - how easy life would have been if Caroline could have behaved more like that!" This is funny (and, perhaps, too true for many of us), but there is something poignant too, in the sense that the only "guidance" this lost soul can get is from a disembodied voice emanating from his dashboard, just as there is something comical, but moving, in the inescapable fact, as Sim discovers, that one can have 70-plus friends on Facebook and an overflowing e-mail inbox and still be utterly alone.

Coe's satire pierces less than his compassion, and Sim, for all his shortcomings, increasingly gains our sympathy, if not our affection. By the novel's end, Sim has discovered that there is more of his father - and his father's hidden self - in him than he ever dared acknowledge before. Embracing that knowledge, and acting on it, as he is enabled (a little too neatly) to do, will be what saves him, Coe suggests. Then, in the final chapter, he throws us a metafictional curveball in the form of authorial intervention that will leave your jaw hanging. I leave it to you to determine whether it's with appreciation or disbelief.

Kathleen Byrne, a Toronto writer and editor, frequently reviews for Globe Books.

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