Review of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

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Book Review of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

One sentence summary

An ingenious and witty account of one man’s fall (and rise?) aided by modern technology.


Five and half stars if that’s possible

Our Review

Jonathan Coe is known for many engaging and original books such as What a Carve Up, The House of Sleep and The Rotters’ Club (serialised on BBC Television), and a new book by him is eagerly awaited by his readers.  The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, does not disappoint, and to my mind is among his best, or may even be the best.  The book is funny and satirical, while also being at times moving, evoking an unexpected sympathy for Maxwell who seems to be the classic “loser”, perhaps showing us the un-wisdom of writing people off too soon.

There are so many themes in this book its difficult to know where to start.  Maxwell Sim is newly separated (against his will) from his wife and daughter and suffering from acute loneliness, exacerbated by his failure to get more than 70 friends on Facebook.  He has been off work for six months with clinical depression and when the book opens, he is making a visit to his father in Australia.  This is a depressing experience, for his father is, as he has been all his life, distant and aloof, preferring to blank out his family rather than constructively engaging with them.

On the plane home he meets a young woman called Poppy and is surprised to find that for once in his life he forms a genuinely spontaneous and fulfilling relationship with her, which will surface again later in the book.  Significantly, she shows him a letter describing the voyage of Donald Crowhurst, who took part in a round the world sailing race in the 1970s but allowed his personal chaos to beguile him into trying to cover up his failure to complete the course by falsifying logs and ultimately coming to a disastrous end. 

This story resonates with Maxwell, who takes up the theme of losing himself on a long journey by accepting a short term contract driving to the Shetland Islands to promote a new range of toothbrushes (cleverly incorporated in the cover design of the book!).  Maxwell takes delivery of a Toyota Prius, complete with a beguiling female-voiced Satnav, and heads up north, calling in on the way on various people from his past including old neighbours, his wife and daughter, and an old almost-flame who once again he doesn’t quite hook up with.

During the course of his story, poor Maxwell finds out more and more about what people think about him.  When he discovers  that his wife is an avid participator on Mumsnet, he invents a female persona and starts to correspond with her.  This turns out to be not a good idea because he finds out more about her attitude to him than is good for him. 

Later he reads an old college essay written by a neighbours daughter twenty years ago which contains even more upsetting news about his past.  A final attack on Maxwell’s sanity is provided by a document he finds in a collection of his father’s papers which contains devastating news about Maxwell’s origins.   Coe inserts these various documents and others into the text, so we get to see the source material and experience Maxwell’s surprises first hand.  With too much information filling his already stressed brain, the drive north proceeds with Maxwell descending into a state of mental chaos from which it seems impossible for him to return.

I will not say any more about the story as it would be too easy to spoil.  The themes are immensely clever however, not least the way in which the isolated and lonely Maxwell finds modern technology both a friend and an enemy, providing him with impersonal contacts, but also leading him into a world of illusion which definitely does not help his state of mind.  

I enjoyed the way Jonathan Coe allows us into Maxwell’s mind.  The story is told in the first person, and it we soon realise that Maxwell is a nice guy, but terribly ordinary.  Coe however allows us to see that there is rather more to him than at first meets the eye and it is rewarding to see the character development that occurs despite the many set-backs.

I’d love to write about the ending to this book.  Frankly, I have never read anything like it before and would love to be able to discuss it here, but alas this would wreck the experience of reading the book.  Unique hardly describes it.  Does it work?  I think so, but lets not describe it too readily as “post-modern” – Coe’s literary device is unique to him and defies categorisation (I apologise to my readers for being obtuse, but can only encourage them to get their hands on this book so they can see what I mean).

Its not often I can say that a book has been a wholly satisfying read, but I found it very difficult to put this book down. It was another book which I raced through with no sense of boredom or tedium, and it passed my classic test of literary engagement – do I miss the characters when I’ve finished the book?  Yes, I regretted Maxwell going forever out of my life when I turned the final page and would have liked to have found out what happened next.

Title:   The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim
Author:  Jonathan Coe
Publication:   Penguin Books Ltd (2010), Paperback, 352 pages
ISBN: 9780670918799

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