Number 11 by Jonathan Coe is a satire about modern Britain. It tells a series of stories that are linked by the characters of two girls who first holiday in Beverley at the beginning of the century. Each section is connected in some way to the number 11, and each focuses on a different aspect of modern Britain.
The book opens in Beverley, where her grandparents live, with a seminal moment for Rachel, the narrator. It is the Iraq war, and she hears about the death in mysterious circumstances of Dr David Kelly, the UN weapons inspector. This is the first death Rachel has experienced, a loss of innocence and a first engagement with the dirty business of politics.
Later Rachel returns to Beverley with her friend Alison. She meets the mysterious Birdwoman – a frightening and intimidating personage living in isolation at the end of a country lane. Rachel finds out that appearances can be deceptive. Next we move to Birmingham and to Alison’s mother, a singer with limited success, who is invited to appear on I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here. After that a university lecturer attempts to rediscover his childhood innocence by tracking down a film that was broadcast one day in the 1970s. The next section focuses on a literary prize and a short detective story. Finally Alison becomes an au-pair, or home educator for one of the very wealthy families redeveloping Chelsea by excavating huge basements for home cinema complexes and games rooms.
There we are – a sort of episodic novel, though the episodes are only very loosely tied to the two main characters – Alison and Rachel. So we have Alison’s mother as the focus for one story, Rachel’s English tutor’s husband as the focus of another. At each change of narrative we move further and further into the world of modern Britain, from the poverty of working people in austerity Britain, to the elite world of Arts prizes and unearned wealth.
In a way Number 11 is really a series of short stories with quite tenuous links between them. I’m not usually a fan of the short story genre I have to say, but this book does work. The narrative voice is simple and clear, and each story holds the interest of the reader, though the more fanciful concluding episode was my least favourite.
Coe’s targets are fairly clear – people trafficking is in there, the hypocrisy of the media and the dishonesty of media portrayals; reality TV, the cruelty of the press and the ruthlessness with which press barons and vested interests pursue their own ends; the immense chasm that has opened up between the very wealthy few and most of the rest of us. All of these receive their fair share of scorn.
This is not a book that made me laugh out loud, though I did smile on more than one occasion. It is an easy read, a fairly light hearted account, yet with some serious points. One of the characters is distinguished by a philosophical dislike of comedians and of satire: he criticises satire because it allows us feel good by making us laugh at evil, but allows us to get away with doing nothing about it: as if laughing itself was the cathartic experience that removed all need for more direct emotional expression. I kind of get that idea, and feel the same about this book. I enjoyed it, but what should I do now?