מאת Jonathan Coe
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November the 15th, 1973. A Thursday evening, drizzle whispering against the window-panes, and the family gathered in the living room. All except Colin, who is out on business, and has told his wife and children not to wait up. Weak light from a pair of wrought-iron standard lamps. The coal-effect fire hisses.
Sheila Trotter is reading the Daily Mail: "'˜To have and to hold, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health–"these are the promises which do in fact sustain most married couples through the bad patches."
Lois is reading Sounds: "Guy, 18, cat lover, seeks London chick, into Sabbath. Only Freaks please."
Paul, precociously, is reading Watership Down: "Simple African villagers, who have never left their remote homes, may not be particularly surprised by their first sight of an aeroplane: it is outside their comprehension."
As for Benjamin . . . I suppose he is doing his homework at the dining table. The frown of concentration, the slightly protruding tongue (a family trait, of course: I've seen my mother look the same way, crouched over her laptop). History, probably. Or maybe physics. Something which doesn't come easily, at any rate. He looks across at the clock on the mantelpiece. The organized type, he has set himself a deadline. He has ten minutes to go. Ten more minutes in which to write up the experiment.
I'm doing my best, Patrick. Really I am. But it's not an easy one to tell, the story of my family. Uncle Benjamin's story, if you like.
I'm not even sure this is the right place to start. But perhaps one place is as good as any other. And this is the one I've chosen. Mid-November, the dark promise of an English winter, almost thirty years ago.
November the 15th, 1973.
Long periods of silence were common. They were a family who had never learned the art of talking to one another. All of them inscrutable, even to themselves: all except Lois, of course. Her needs were simple, defined, and in the end she was punished for it. That's how I see things, anyway.
I don't think she wanted much, at this stage of her life. I think she only wanted companionship, and the occasional babble of voices around her. She would have had a craving for chatter, coming from that family; but she was not the sort to lose herself in a giggling circus of friends. She knew what she was looking for, I'm sure of that; already knew, even then, even at the age of sixteen. And she knew where to look for it, too. Ever since her brother had started buying Sounds every Thursday, on the way home from school, it had become her furtive weekly ritual to feign interest in the back-page adverts for posters and clothes ("Cotton drill shirts in black, navy, flame-red, cranberry–great to team with loons") when her real focus of attention was the personal column. She was looking for a man.
She had read nearly all of the personals by now. She was beginning to despair.
"Freaky Guy (20) wants crazy chick (16+) for love. Into Quo and Zep."
Once again, not exactly ideal. Did she want her guy to be freaky? Could she honestly describe herself as crazy? Who were Quo and Zep, anyway?
"Great guy wishes groovy chick to write, into Tull, Pink Floyd, 17–28."
"Two freaky guys seek heavy chicks. 16+, love and affection."
"Guy (20), back in Kidderminster area, seeks attractive chick(s)."
Kidderminster was only a few miles away, so this last one might have been promising, if it weren't for the giveaway plural in...
- Jonathan Coe has received the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, the Prix Médicis Etranger, and, for The Rotters’ Club, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for the most original comic writing. He lives in London.
January 28, 2002
This witty, sprawling and ambitious novel relates the coming-of-age stories of a group of adolescents in Birmingham, England, in the 1970s, with the era itself becoming a kind of character, encompassing trivialities like music as well as more serious issues: labor struggles, racism, terrorism. Of course, the teenagers—Benjamin Trotter (a play on his name accounts for the novel's title) and three of his male classmates, along with two female peers, are struggling with their own timeless issues: Why are my parents so weird? Will I ever have sex? Is Eric Clapton God? Coe amusingly and sympathetically articulates the desperate nature of teenage life, demonstrating a sure command of his protagonists' vernacular. He juxtaposes "crises" of adolescence with much more compelling events: a pub bombing by Irish nationalists and drawn-out strikes, for example, and the very real toll they take on people, including some of his characters. But this interweaving also reveals the novel's biggest problem: the combination of these two narrative strands isn't as seamless as it ought to be, nor as illuminating as Coe intends. The book is Dickensian in scope, with multiple plot lines and perspectives as well as miniature portraits of virtually everyone connected with the teens. Unfortunately, the narrative is sometimes hard to follow, and individual characters often remain opaque. The difficulty is compounded by rapidly shifting perspectives and an awkward framing narrative set in the early 2000s. As he demonstrated in his well-received novel about the Thatcher years, The Winshaw Legacy, Coe is immensely clever, but that cleverness is almost misplaced here: universal as it may be, adolescent angst doesn't really compare to the problems of massive social change. (Feb. 26)FYI:This novel is intended as the first of a two-book series, the second of which will revisit the characters' lives in the 1990s.
Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post Book World
"Reflective and compelling, satirical and tender, wildly imaginative and painstakingly realistic."
- Mike Francis, The Oregonian "The gritty, cross-pond equivalent to Look Homeward, Angel. . . . The pangs of embarrassment, the anguish of uncertainty, the awkwardness of success [are] vividly present here."
- Stephen Amidon, The Atlantic Monthly "Funny and astute . . . The strength of The Rotters' Club lies in its comic humanity."
- Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour "Please, God . . . if there's a next life, let me write as well as Jonathan Coe. The Rotters' Club offers a thick slice of seventies Birmingham--sharp, acerbic, and menacingly true; a sad, funny, thoroughly engaging look at compromise, complicity, and change in a decade many of us would choose to forget."
- Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review "Its tinder-dry combustion of comic, indignant and elegiac suggests an Evelyn Waugh of the left."
- David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle "A thrillingly traitorous work. It hums along for a hundred pages of wise comedy about teenage love's mortifications, then cold cocks us with an honest surprise as cruel as it is earned."
- The Seattle Times "Jonathan Coe is a mesmerizing writer. . . . The Rotters' Club is a wonderfully gripping novel, by turns funny, heartbreaking and terrifying."
- Todd Pruzan, The Village Voice "The novel's many intricate parts manage to mesh and turn with the startling harmony you find in Robert Altman's movies."
- Charles Taylor, Salon.com "If there's a contemporary novelist who combines sharp and sometimes savage social commentary with the classic, full-blooded pleasures novels are supposed to give readers as well as Jonathan Coe does, I must have missed him."
- Katie Owen, The Telegraph "A must-read for anyone who cares about contemporary literature."
- William Sutcliffe, The Independent on Sunday "Filled with characters whose destinies we care about, whose welfare moves us. This is the simplest but highest calling of literature."
- Peter Bradshaw, "As always with Jonathan Coe, the sheer intelligent good nature that suffuses his work makes it a pleasure to read."
מו"לKnopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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