Jonathan Coe’s "The Winshaw Legacy" appeared in 1995. His sequel to that politically twisted first novel was published 20 years later in Britain. It now finally appears in its first American edition. Let’s just say that "Number 11" is as savage a satire and as angry a novel as is its predecessor.
What Coe does fiercely in "Number 11" is upend every imaginable literary genre from memoir to entertainment news, from Conan Doyle mystery to Stephen King horror, in his attempt to make us aware, to warn us, of the dangers we have allowed to take over our contemporary world.
The novel is essentially a chronicle of the coming of age of two young women. There are five sections, each in a particular style of storytelling. The first section begins as memoir, as young Rachel remembers a relatively horrific joke her older brother played on her when they were children exploring a creepy old minster.
That memory is replaced by memories of summer visits during the early part of this century to her grandparents’ village with her good friend Alison in tow. On one of those visits, the two friends come face to face with the Mad Bird Woman, who lives at Number 11 Needless Alley, a house covered with netting to contain the myriad birds inside. The Mad Bird Woman is the one who gives each of the girls a playing card with a spider rampant on the back, a card that remains an important memento for Rachel.
Rachel and/or Alison are front and center in or peripheral to each of the tales, tales that move through passing mention of the Iraq War to the present day. Each of the tales is more and more unsettling than the last.
In one, Alison’s mother, desperate to regain her fleeting fame as a singer, humiliates herself on a "Survivor"-style reality series. When she returns from that fiasco, all she can do is ride the Number 11 bus as it loops around the vast city of Birmingham.
Then Rachel spends a country weekend idyll with her Oxford University mentor. Rachel learns of Laura’s dead husband and his obsession with a short German film he had seen only once when he was young. He found the only print of that film in the Number 11 storage locker — where he died. He took refuge in "the beautiful, blanketing safety of the past" and in childhood where, of course, choices are made for us.
Then there’s the witty, surreal Holmesian tale of detective Nathan Pilbeam, who from Table Number 11 investigates the deaths of two stand-up comics at an event awarding The Winshaw Prize for the Best Prize in the U.K. Says Pilbeam: "To solve an English crime committed by an English criminal, one must contemplate the condition of England itself."
Which is basically what the adult Rachel does as tutor to the three children of the inordinately wealthy Lord and Lady Gunn, on safari as well as back at their increasingly disturbing family manse on one of the most prized streets in London. It’s a horror tale of greed and retribution, with something not right scuttling across Floor Number 11, which is under construction in the bowels of the Gunn home.
"Number 11" becomes more and more sinister as it moves towards its conclusion. It is a wild and cautionary satire of our contemporary world, of our need to "monetize" everything, and of our increasing ignorance of what’s around us.
Jonathan Coe has set his novel in contemporary Britain. That the book is now being published in America in the aftermath of our first 100 days with our new president makes the novel’s prescience unsettling indeed. In fact, its prescience is palpable.
Steven Whitton is a Professor of English at Jacksonville State University.