“The paradox is this: I have to assume, for the sake of my sanity, that I am going mad. Because what’s the alternative? The alternative is to believe that the thing I saw the other night was real. And if I allowed myself to believe that, surely the horror of it would also make me lose my mind. In other words, I’m trapped. Trapped between two choices, two paths, both of which lead to insanity.”
How to describe the weird delight that is Number 11, Jonathan Coe’s latest novel? It’s funny, tragic, satirical, political, hauntingly real, human. I’ve never read a novel quite like this, and the closest comparison I can come up with is the television series Black Mirror. But Number 11 has the angling look at contemporary culture and politics without some of the more disturbing aspects of that show.
This is my first Jonathan Coe read, and I must say really enjoyed it, speeding through the pages on airplanes and in airports and at midnight with a flashlight under the covers. It was entertaining without being flippant, true to life without being too heavy to handle.
The book begins when Rachel and Alison are children, friends at the beginning of this century. On holiday from school, they quickly learn the world is not as friendly as they might hope. With a politician’s death publicized on the news and a strange woman down the street known as the Mad Bird Woman, the two girls are curious about odd happenings in the woods. What they imagine is a case of murderous insanity is really something worse, something they hardly understand yet: the struggling condition of immigrants in the UK.
This sets the tone for the rest of the book. Things aren’t what they seem: they’re worse. From my perspective, it was interesting to see the British side of political events that occurred when I was Rachel and Alison’s age. From the Iraq War to reality television to internet trolls to the extravagance of the wealthy to the “monetization of wonder,” reality is checked against many mirrors, and it comes up short. What stands out in comparison is Rachel and Alison’s friendship as they help, lose, and find one another again. Maybe with all the terrifying whirlwind of the age of technology and reality television, friendship can override tragedy, but still, it feels a bit optimistic in the world Coe portrays.
The number eleven refers to many things throughout the novel: the street number of the Mad Bird Woman, a circular bus route that provides refuge for Alison’s mother, a table at a banquet where an attempted murder occurs, and for 11 Downing Street (home of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, next door to the Prime Minister). It’s a way to tie all the storylines together, and gives it a sense of conspiracy. I’m not a wide reader of satire, so perhaps am not the best judge, but this format worked for me, making me curious about the shadows in the corners of the book.
And what are these shadows? I mustn’t spoil them for you, but will only say they live underground and might just haunt your nightmares.
Some of the plot is implausible, yes, and even verges on magical realism, but if you take it in stride, you’ll find it an enjoyable, thought-provoking journey. If nothing else, it is an interesting look at contemporary British culture, and if you are an American like me, you will find it hauntingly similar to our own.
Thanks to Vintage Books and Penguin Random House for providing a copy of Number 11 for review.