The terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim
We’re outside the box. In fact, we’re so outside the box that the box is actually in another room, and we’ve forgotten where that room is, and even if we could remember, we’ve given the keys back ages ago and for all we know, the locks might have been changed since then anyway.
As the Guardian’s reviewer very well puts it, Maxwell Sim is the man we’re all afraid to become in our darkest nightmares: unloved, unsuccessful, irrelevant and, above all, desperately lonely. Left by his wife and teen daughter (who choose to move up north) he has a nervous breakdown and is unemployed for nearly 5 months when we first meet him, sitting in a restaurant in Sidney, watching a mother and daughter playing cards and envying their closeness, their intimacy. Actually no – we meet him beforehand, in a newspaper article intent on informing us that our would-be hero will soon end up naked in his car, with two empty bottles of scotch, somewhere in the far Scottish north. How he gets from the Sidney Harbour to that sorry state – that’s what the next 300-or so pages are for.
Mr. Coe takes many detours through Sim’s life, most important of which is Donald Crowhurst, a 1960s failed explorer who set out to do a round-the-world boat trip and ultimately failed not only to complete it, but even to fake its completion. The man was driven mad by his isolation and Sim increasingly identifies with him.
The overall tone is lightly mocking, ironic towards various contemporary mores (Facebook, Prius) but this, while amusing, already feels dated, only 2 years after the book’s publication. Not to mention the fact that Mr. Coe’s bag is full of conjurer’s tricks: coincidences, parallels and odd resemblances, sudden shifts in situation and perspective piled up one after another until they simply get to be too much and they overtake the story. Makes for a good pair with Paul Auster with this. In a way, he’s probably too clever for his own good. But Max’s late journey of discovery into his past and into himself still cannot be anything but moving: his difficulty in connecting with his daughter, his regrets over time misspent with his wife, his naiveté in thinking that Poppy, a woman 25 years his junior (with a profession worthy of a quirky indie movie), would be attracted to him, his agonizing over what x would mean at the end of a text message and his general desperation for human contact – they’re all sad, pathetic little moments that, oddly enough, make him endearing.
The review I linked to at the beginning is rather harsh but if you look at it objectively, it brings up good points. I, for one, was annoyed with the all-too-obvious parallel between father and son and by the fourth-wall-breaking meta ending (although it did save the author a fall into the complete sentimentality of a so-called happy ending) – but despite all these I loved the book and found Sim, in his slightly saner moments, to be a very relatable character. I’m thinking I should give What a carve up! a chance, since it’s touted as being Mr. Coe’s best work yet.