Sunday, March 22, 2020

the last book I read

Imaginary Friends by Alison Lurie.

Roger Zimmern is a newly-qualified professor of sociology at Corinth University (fictional, but apparently modelled on Cornell) in upstate New York. Keen to impress the senior figures in his department, and the semi-legendary Tom McMann in particular, he readily agrees to participate in a study McMann is doing of a religious cult in a nearby small town called Sophis.

The Truth Seekers, as they call themselves, have a rather unique brand of vaguely Christian belief: certain extraterrestrial beings from the distant galaxy of Varna (all of whom have rather perfunctory names like Ro and Lo) have been observing Earth (their civilisation being well in advance of ours) in preparation for an in-person (or quite possibly in-betentacled-space-lizard) visit when the time is right and humanity has attained the necessary level of enlightenment. The unlikely conduit for all this information is a young woman called Verena Roberts, who lives with her aunt Elsie in Sophis and has attracted a group of a dozen or so acolytes who gather to hear the messages from Varna. These tend to arrive via a form of automatic writing which Verena goes into a sort of trance to receive.

Zimmern and McMann infiltrate the group, initially under the pretence of just being regular people who happen to be in the area, although this subterfuge doesn't last, and as it happens the Truth Seekers are quite chuffed to be deemed important enough to attract interest from high-falutin' big-city book-learnin' academic types. So the sociologists are accepted and quickly become part of the group, including being expected to fall in line with Ro's increasingly arbitrary behavioural guidance: some fairly severe dietary restrictions (no meat, for instance) and only non-organic fibres in clothing. But you have to comply, because you don't want to be the bad apple in the group whose non-compliance makes our glorious saviours put the flying saucers in reverse and bugger off back to Varna, do you?

Part of the reason McMann was so keen to study a group of this type was that pretty much all of them eventually encounter a problem: some sort of Coming is predicted, and eventually a specific date is attached. And since the whole thing is a mass delusion, eventually that date will pass and it will become apparent that the Great Event has not happened, and the group will either fragment and wither, or find some way of rationalising things and carrying on with its belief system reinforced (which seems surprisingly common, as utterly barking as it sounds).

Sure enough Verena announces that Ro and his mates (Bo and So and Zo, I shouldn't wonder) will be coming to Earth in a very literal physical undeniable landing-the-flying-saucer-on-the-front-lawn kind of way in just a couple of weeks' time, and everyone should ensure that they are spiritually prepared, laying off the corned beef and wearing drip-dry Crimplene slacks for the big occasion. This is the big day for Zimmern and McMann: what will happen? How will the group react when the inevitable happens?

All appears to be going as predicted when, despite much standing around chanting in the garden midnight comes and goes and no little green men have knocked at the door (although there is always the possibility of the entire fleet having been accidentally swallowed by a small dog). It's Verena's Aunt Elsie who finds a way out of the situation: what if Ro and his chums did visit, but via some sort of eleventh-dimensional pan-galactic gateway type shit beyond the puny power of our visual cortices to register, and moreover what if Ro were even now occupying the fleshy mortal form of....you, Tom McMann? McMann thinks for a minute and then goes: yyeeeesss, I think you may be right there, Elsie.

Unsure whether McMann is simply playing some complex sociological long game or has in fact taken leave of his senses, Zimmern gets what appears to be a conclusive answer the following morning when he and McMann return to the house. First Elsie drags McMann off upstairs for a close-quarters personal consultation with Ro of Varna, then just as Zimmern encounters Verena in the kitchen there is a knock at the door and Ken, a former group member and would-be suitor of Verena, arrives, whereupon McMann goes berserk, banishes Ken from the house at gunpoint and is shortly afterwards carted off by the police.

Zimmern subsequently visits McMann in the mental institution he's been confined to and finds himself unable to reach a conclusion on McMann's sanity. Was McMann's going along with Elsie's bizarre theory just part of a dedication to completing the study, whatever it took? Similarly, is McMann's claim to now be faking a continuing mental imbalance in order to conduct a study of the institution from the inside to be taken at face value, or is he just a loony?

This is the third Alison Lurie novel on this list, after The Truth About Lorin Jones and Foreign Affairs, but the earliest one in terms of its date of publication - it was her third novel, published in 1967 (the other two are from the 1980s). I'm not sure if that has anything to do with why I found it
less satisfying than the other two. Basically once the set-up is complete and the sociologists are embedded within the group very little of any consequence (or, arguably, interest) happens until right at the end when McMann suddenly loses (or appears to lose) his marbles. It's unclear who the target of the satire is here - if it's the cultists (and it presumably it at least partly is) then there's a suspicion of shooting fish in a barrel. To be fair there is probably also a more subtle point being made about the impossibility of observing people's behaviour from close quarters without unconsciously influencing that behaviour in some way. Nonetheless for a fairly short book (less than 300 pages in my Penguin paperback) it sags quite a bit in the middle, and could probably have been 50-60 pages shorter without suffering too much. I mean, it's not actually bad, but if you want Alison Lurie books then Foreign Affairs and The War Between The Tates are probably better places to start.

Friday, March 06, 2020

headline of the day

Not much competition for this title today: it pretty much has to be this one.


It's unclear from the article whether Shatner just emerged from a lengthy session with his and his ex-wife's respective legal teams proudly bearing a sloppy brimming bucket of warm horse jizz, or whether some other arrangement was put in place. Either way, I'm sure the legal negotiations were tough and gruelling, but Shatner and his lawyers showed some spunk and pulled it off. I expect you can make up your own jokes.

Monday, March 02, 2020

the last book I read

The Affirmation by Christopher Priest.

Peter Sinclair is twenty-nine. Or is he? He lives in London. Or does he? He's been spending a period of self-reflection in a borrowed cottage following a series of misfortunes - bereavement, redundancy, the break-up of a relationship - and trying to reconnect with his life by writing a sort of autobiography. Or has he?

Let's at least start by taking things at face value, or we won't get anywhere. Following his various misfortunes Peter Sinclair has borrowed a rural cottage from a family friend, rent-free for a period on the understanding that he will undertake various renovation and maintenance work during his stay. To try and knit his traumatised mind back together he undertakes a work of autobiography, trying to call upon all his memories to make sense of his life and the situation he finds himself in. After a couple of false starts he quickly abandons any attempt to write a "straight" factual account of his life, instead conjuring up a whole fictional world and embedding various loosely-disguised people and locations from his real life in it; this allows him the freedom to write what he wants to write and hope that some sort of deeper, truer truth will emerge from the fictions.

Parts of his supposedly "real" life turn out to be fictitious, though, when his sister Felicity (with whom he has a fractious relationship) turns up at the house and scolds him for having done no renovation work, and cluttering up the spare rooms with scores of empty bottles, and carts him off to her place in Sheffield so she can keep an eye on him. Peter takes refuge in his manuscript, and this time we follow him in.

Peter Sinclair is twenty-nine, and a citizen of the city of Jethra in the country of Faiandland. He's never left Faiandland before, but he's going to now, as he's just won a lottery to take a cruise through the scenic Dream Archipelago to the island of Collago, where he will be the lucky recipient of a medical treatment ("athanasia") which will make him effectively immortal. First port-of-call is the lottery company offices on one of the nearest islands, where he meets Seri, who works for the company; they soon embark on a relationship and she offers to accompany him to Collago.

So this is all pretty straightforward, right? Jethra is London, the cruise represents some unfulfilled wish for travel and excitement, the athanasia represents, ooh, I dunno, fear of death or something, and Seri is just Peter's "real" ex-girlfriend Gracia with some of the inconvenient spiky corners (the argumentativeness, the penchant for self-harm, the sexual voraciousness) smoothed off.

Hold your horses, though: the Collago clinic is a bit more, well, clinical than Peter expects, and it is revealed that one of the side-effects of the athanasia treatment is a complete loss of memory. For this reason they ask patients to fill out a detailed questionnaire before signing the release forms. Aha, says Peter, I can save some time there, because I have this manuscript I wrote a short while back in an attempt to explain my life, and which I always carry around with me.

So the treatment is applied, and Peter's medical team (with help from Seri) attempt to rebuild his memories from the manuscript. The trouble is, they're having to edit as they go, because this is a semi-fictionalised account of Peter's life with all the names changed. This "London" place is obviously meant to be Peter's home town, Jethra, but some of the other stuff is less easy to decipher. What and when was "World War II"? Who is this "Hitler" guy? Who is Gracia?

We return to London, and to Gracia, now tentatively reconciled with Peter. All is not completely peachy, though, and part of the reason for this is Peter's increasing detachment and distraction. This, it turns out, is because the two worlds now seem to be bleeding into each other in some way and Peter is having occasional visitations from Seri. We assume these are hallucinations, but they are wholly convincing, and on one occasion, after Peter follows Seri on a lengthy wild goose chase via the Tube out to the London suburbs, seem to include lengthy periods of crossover into the alternate world. During this period Gracia attempts suicide, and when she recovers she and Peter have a climactic quarrel during which it emerges that the pages of his manuscript are blank, at least to everyone except Peter. As London and Jethra bleed into one another the novel ends halfway through a sentence, just as all the various versions of Peter's manuscript have done throughout the novel.

The trick of having a book-within-a-book mentioned in the text of a novel and then having it emerge at the end that the text of the novel is the text of the book-within-a-book is one that has featured here before, though not embedded in such an intricate puzzle-box mechanism. The obvious surface reading here is that Peter is a guy in our familiar "real" world having some sort of stress-induced breakdown, and that the imagined world is indicative of his mind's retreat from reality, perhaps temporary, perhaps not. This put me in mind of Doris Lessing's powerfully baffling Briefing For A Descent Into Hell which follows a similar pattern.

This is not the only possible reading, of course, an alternative one being that the intense apparent "reality" of the London world is a false memory implanted by the botched rebuilding of Peter's memory from his own fictionalised manuscript after the athanasia process. As this blog post says, rightly I think, how receptive you are to that reading of the text probably depends how much "science fiction" (the usual caveats apply here) you read, since it requires you to accept the Jethra world as the "real" one.

This is also a novel about writing, though, and the reader is expected to take note that it's absurd to view the London scenes as somehow more "real" than the Jethra ones, because of course the whole thing is made up. It's also about how fragile our sense of "self" is, and how that sense might survive a traumatic event like a complete brain-wipe, even if we could somehow restore the contents of our brain afterwards from a completely faithful backup, especially when you consider that you could do the same restore into a completely different blank brain in a completely different physical body. Would this be "you", too?

This is a much more structurally tricksy book than the other Christopher Priest book on this list, Inverted World - also the only other one I've ever read, though I have seen the film of The PrestigeThat doesn't necessarily mean it's a better book, although on balance I think it probably is. Many echoes of other books here - as well as Briefing For A Descent Into Hell I was reminded of Never Let Me Go for both the prominent plot point of some slightly hand-wavy medical treatment and the slipperiness of questions of identity (in that case because of genetic cloning rather than mind-wiping) and Solaris for some similar questions about the nature of "self" (there it was simulations wholly generated out of thin air). The whole looping structure of a book essentially writing itself (compared in the introduction to my Gollancz SF Masterworks edition to the famous Escher lithograph of two hands drawing each other) is also reminiscent of Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller.

In case it's not clear, I enjoyed The Affirmation very much; one reason I stress this is because I don't want Priest himself (still very much alive at 76) dropping in to harangue me in person, as befits someone who must occasionally Google his own name, if this slightly snippy intervention (assuming it's genuine, of course) on someone else's blog is anything to go by. This 2011 entry on his own blog reveals that he's not a man to shrug off an indifferent review, nor to allow the passage of thirty-odd years to diminish a grudge, even if his central point about reviewers barely reading the books they're tasked with reviewing is a reasonable one.

Lastly, The Affirmation is the first in a lengthy sequence of books in Priest's canon which carry two-word titles starting with "The". It's also the 21st book in this list to have a title in that format (i.e. The X where X is a single word) and the second on that list alphabetically, slotting in just behind The Accidental.

Friday, February 28, 2020

headline of the day

From Twitter, and not a crash blossom for once, this is just a bit....well, see for yourself:


It definitely has a bit of a Day Today/Brass Eye feel to it, in particular the references to paedophilia and the inability to avoid hearing it read out in Chris Morris' faux-concerned Michael Buerk voice.

Monday, February 24, 2020

getting blown off at the weekend

Two motivational celebrity quotes for you today. The first is from the great Bill Hicks, whose views on the desirability of exciting and diverse weather I wholeheartedly share (the bit quoted here was talking about the prevailing weather in Los Angeles):



Secondly, dear, dear Larry Olivier was apparently once quoted as saying something like: if you really want to be an actor, you will; if you end up not being one, you just didn't want it enough. Now this may very possibly be one of those motivational quotes that some Californian loony cooked up in order to sell his latest bullshit "life coaching" course to rich gullible people, and then decided it would acquire some unearned gravitas if he attached some famous person's name to it. Winston Churchill is the name people usually attach to these things, and indeed some people I know have this "quote" prominently displayed in their house despite its being pretty clearly late-20th-century psychobabble and not something Churchill would ever have said. CRITICAL THINKING, people.

I digress. The point of those two quotes, and their relevance to what follows, is to celebrate varied and exciting weather conditions, even those which are intermittently inconvenient, and to venture the theory that when conditions are a bit arduous and some on-the-hoof re-planning and re-prioritising may be required, a bit of mental fortitude may also be required to push through and achieve your objective, whatever it may be.

No doubt this is wisdom applicable to various situations, but here I specifically have in mind the walk I and my friend Alex did on Saturday. I had been granted a childcare-obligation-free day as a sort of birthday present to go and do a walk of my own devising, so I'd devised a new route up Pen y Fan, a mountain I have been up more times than I can remember, but even restricting myself to trips recorded on this blog ascended in 2008, 2009 (a post which includes a couple of summit pics from older, pre-blog, ascents), 2010, 2013 and 2018 plus an abortive attempt in 2007.

Those trips encompassed a variety of different routes in an attempt to keep things fresh and interesting - Saturday's route was meant to involve ascending via the Cefn Cyff ridge to Fan y Big, skirting round the south side of Cribyn to bag Pen y Fan, and then heading back to the summit of Cribyn and down via the Bryn Teg ridge. Both of those ridges were unexplored territory for me.

So we parked up at Cwmgwdi, the main car park for assaults on the eastern Beacons from the northern side, and set off. When we reached the farm at Cwmcynwyn, though, it soon became clear that the innocuous word "Ford" on the OS map hid a world of raging watery terror in the wake of Storm Dennis, and that the Nant Cynwyn brook, which you could probably step over in summer, was not going to be passable without full-body immersion and possibly death. So we devised plan B, which was to head up Bryn Teg instead, do Cribyn and Pen y Fan and head back down the Cefn Cwm Llwch ridge which takes you straight back to the car park.

Once we got onto the ridge, though, another problem presented itself. Not the usual rain or low cloud (visibility was actually pretty good most of the day), but being battered flat by high winds. An inconvenience you can laugh off when on a wide whale-backed ridge, but the last section up to Cribyn is a steep scramble up a narrow ridge with steep drop-offs on either side, and we reluctantly concluded that it probably wasn't a good idea. This presented a problem, though, as Cribyn had to be got over or round if we were going to get to Pen y Fan. So we adopted the time-honoured approach to crisis management and real-time route adjustment: sit down and have a pork pie and devise Plan C.

Having dropped off the eastern side of the ridge to facilitate wind-free pie consumption it became apparent that a bit of pathless but uncomplicated descent would enable us to intersect with the major path which crosses the east-west ridge at Bwlch ar y Fan. From here we skirted round the south side of Cribyn and up onto the Pen y Fan summit plateau, where we were once again exposed to the wind, and (as you can see below) barely able to stand for the summit picture - luckily there were some other nutters up there who were happy to do photo duty, as I wouldn't have fancied trying to wield a selfie stick. From there it was a straightforward but wind-battered descent back to the car park. A very respectable 9 miles in extremely challenging conditions, rather than the 12-13 miles the original walk would have been, but I was delighted just to get something meaningful done in the circumstances. Route map, altitude profile and summit shot are below. You'll note that the red-lined route forms the shape of a boot with Pen y Fan at the heel, appropriately given the amount of ASS that was KICKED by our efforts. A small number of photos can be found here.





the last book I read

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Madeleine Hanna is a student at Brown University in the early 1980s, studying English literature and with a particular interest in the "marriage plot" of the book's title: basically the way many 19th century classics are structured to bring the female heroine and her true love together at the end of the novel after subjecting them to various tribulations and challenges that nearly (but, in the end, not quite) thwart their evident destiny to be together.

It just so happens that Madeleine is involved in a love triangle of sorts (I know, what are the chances): between tall, intimidatingly intense and intelligent biology student Leonard Bankhead (who I pictured as looking a bit like Adam Driver, although one theory has it that he was based at least partly on David Foster Wallace), and theology student Mitchell Grammaticus. It's really only a sort of love triangle, though, because Madeleine and Leonard enter into a relationship that lasts beyond graduation and into the early stages of their respective post-graduate activities: Leonard does a stint at a lab in Cape Cod as a post-graduate placement and Madeleine accompanies him while applying for her own placements to further her English studies. Meanwhile Mitchell embarks on a lengthy period of travelling in order (presumably) to both Find Himself and forget about Madeleine; this takes him through Europe and on to India, where he finds himself working in Mother Teresa's Calcutta hospice, where he experiences some conflict between his religious inclinations and the grinding day-to-day realities of caring for the elderly and terminally sick, in particular the sheer amount of arse-wiping involved.

Back in New England Madeleine and Leonard are still together, but experiencing some difficulties, principally because of Leonard's increasingly crippling bipolar disorder (this being the 1980s it was still known as "manic depression" at the time). During manic episodes he is voluble, given to extravagant gestures of generosity and irrepressibly horny, while during depressive episodes he can barely leave his chair, puts on weight, neglects basic personal hygiene and expresses no interest in Madeleine whatsoever. Needless to say this makes his pursuing a career difficult, Madeleine's pursuing her studies difficult (since she is reluctant to leave him at home alone) and causes tensions with Madeleine's parents, with whom they end up staying for an extended period while looking for somewhere to live in New York.

Eventually things come to ahead after a trip into Manhattan to view a flat - Madeleine and Leonard and Madeleine's friend Kelly (who works for the real estate firm letting the flat) drift on to a party afterwards where they unexpectedly run into Mitchell, recently returned from India. Shortly after Leonard decides it's time to stop being a burden on Madeleine, hops on a train and disappears from her life (though it transpires he has gone to live in a remote cabin somewhere near his own parents' place in Oregon). Mitchell, after sofa-surfing with various friends in New York. ends up staying in Madeleine's parents house for an extended period. Here, surely, is his chance to make his move on Madeleine and round off the plot on a satisfying Austen-esque way. But is it what either of them really wants?

If you read a lot of fiction you'll end up reading quite a lot of books that specifically have A Point that they want to make and arrange the actions of their central characters to illustrate that point. Then there are novels like this, which just introduce you to some characters, fill in some detail to make them come alive for you and make you care about them a bit, and then tell a story about them. Getting all agitated about this sort of novel and saying: yes, but what's it for? is probably to miss the point of what novels are meant to be. That's not to say that there is literally nothing to take away from this beyond the story: it's very good on the relentlessness of mental illness and the reality of it not, in general, being a thing that people magically "get better" from, regardless of how much better and more convenient that would be narratively. Oddly, the only other novel I can remember reading that realised this quite so vividly was Kingsley Amis' Stanley And The Women, which was very good (and surprisingly sympathetic) about Stanley's son's schizophrenia, while being corrosively uncharitable about just about everything else.

The other thing that The Marriage Plot is is a book about books. So Madeleine's studies involve her reading a lot of books (something she does recreationally anyway, naturally) and a lot of books about books, and books about how to read books (Derrida and Barthes feature highly here). So there is a light veneer of metafiction here, something that becomes a little more archly explicit in the brief epilogue where Madeleine and Mitchell subvert the obvious romantic conclusion to the novel by talking about it in theoretical terms instead. It's not exactly a breaking of the fourth wall, as neither of them actually addresses the reader explicitly, but it feels a bit like it.

This is Eugenides' third and most recent novel; at three in 27 years he's not exactly prolific (The Marriage Plot was published in 2011 and remains his most recent novel). I read its immediate predecessor Middlesex, which was garlanded with multiple awards including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and enjoyed it very much, probably more than this one to be honest. Not that there's anything wrong with The Marriage Plot, and I enjoyed it very much, just that Middlesex had a - if you will - plot that had a bit more heft and significance to it. I suppose The Marriage Plot felt, like Middle England, a bit white and middle-class in comparison.

Monday, February 10, 2020

sentenced to death

The other point I was going to make in the last book review is that Jonathan Coe is one of those people who write broadly "literary" fiction to some critical acclaim and healthy sales but rarely seem to be in the running for major literary awards, of which the most prominent UK one is the Booker Prize. Now if I were one of the characters in Middle England (a Leave-voting one, naturally) I might tuttingly hypothesise that this is because Coe is a straight white male and that's the equivalent of being LITERALLY HITLER these days, political correctness having long since GONE MAD, and so on and so forth. In fact an almost exactly parallel scenario does arise in the book, when Sophie's husband Ian is passed over for a promotion in favour of his British Asian colleague Naheed, and sure enough Ian's mother trots out pretty much exactly that argument.

In fact, I suspect it's more likely to be for the same reason that David Lodge has never won - a general perception that the novels are a bit cosy and parochial and that the awarding committee prefer something a bit more exciting and formally experimental, at least in years where they're not doing the Lifetime Achievement Award thing I theorised about here. I suppose you could translate "exciting" as meaning "exotic" and therefore implicitly "non-white" if you really wanted to.

As it happens, though, with regard to the "formally experimental" bit above, Coe is reputed to be the current record-holder for the longest sentence published in English-language fiction, the epilogue to his novel The Rotters' Club being a continuous sentence apparently comprising 13,955 words. In this interview from 2002 he says he did it as a tribute to Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, whose 1964 novel Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age is written as one long sentence.

This is one of those esoteric literary claims that is tricky to verify and is highly dependent on your precise inclusion criteria, a bit like the "longest novel" claim which I did a post about in the aftermath of reading Infinite Jest in early 2013. Of novels on this list the one that might have been in the running is The Autumn Of The Patriarch, which consists of several-pages-long sentences throughout and is therefore somewhat challenging to read.

Finally, quite a bit of Benjamin Trotter's participation in Middle England is in the form of mooning around reflecting on the past while repeatedly listening to the song Adieu To Old England by Shirley Collins (from her 1974 album of the same name), with the lyrics being prominently featured in the text, presumably to help conjure up some vaguely wistful feelings in the reader and leave them with a profound sense of, I dunno, something or other. I am a bit of a sucker for an English folk ballad, the more hilariously glum and misfortune-laden the better, but I must say this leaves me a bit cold. There isn't much of a tune and Collins has a much less appealing and expressive voice than her contemporary Sandy Denny or, more recently, Kate Rusby.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

the last book I read

Middle England by Jonathan Coe.

There is, I think, a reasonably convincing argument that there was a moment in 2010 when the UK's reality timeline diverged into two radically different futures: the normal one where everyone continued bimbling along, muddling through, not really worrying too much about customs unions, non-tariff barriers, regulatory alignment or overt and unashamed displays of racism (not to mention actual murdering of MPs in the street), and the shouty dystopian right-wing fractured hellscape we currently inhabit, and that furthermore that moment can be identified as the few hours during which the Gillian Duffy affair played out in the public eye. Perhaps there is even now a wibbly-wobbly parallel universe where Gordon Brown either remembered to remove his radio mic before getting in the car, or provided a more robust response to her criticisms than caving in and issuing a grovelling apology.
Broadly speaking, Middle England takes the same view, or at least it starts in the same place, in the run-up to the 2010 UK general election. That is where we meet most of the major characters: Benjamin Trotter, his sister Lois, her daughter Sophie, and various of Benjamin and Lois' schoolfriends - journalist Doug Anderton, publisher Philip Chase, and a few others. All of them would be in their early fifties (Sophie is younger, obviously) and will be familiar (in younger incarnations) to anyone who's read Coe's earlier books The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle, to which Middle England is a loose sequel.

Benjamin is really the focal point of the story here, as he was in the two previous books, and he's currently living a comfortable enough life in a nice riverside cottage, single, no particular need to work for a living, spending a lot of time honing his magnum opus, a gargantuan novel with accompanying self-composed prog-rock soundtrack. Lois, meanwhile, is still married to, but living apart from, her husband, and their daughter Sophie is in the early stages of an academic career and nurturing a fledgling romance with Ian, whom she met when he was the instructor on a speed awareness course she was obliged to take.

Benjamin is persuaded by some friends (specifically Philip, who offers to publish the book for him) to trim his enormo-novel down by a couple of thousand pages to a brief novella encompassing the pursuit and subsequent loss of an ex-girlfriend and ditch all the other stuff (including the prog-rock soundtrack). Against all odds, it is a slow-burning critical success and gets longlisted for the Booker Prize. Meanwhile Sophie's relationship with Ian progresses through engagement, marriage and some post-marriage disillusionment at the realisation that basically he isn't as bright as her and harbours certain attitudes that might have been kept safely under wraps were it not for certain external factors, specifically the Conservative victory at the 2015 general election and David Cameron's offer of a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union.

So you don't need me to tell you what happens next: wild and unpredictable forces are unleashed, MPs are murdered in the street, Britain votes to leave the European Union and an uncertain future faces everyone. Sophie and Ian manage, against the odds, and perhaps only temporarily, to hold things together, and Benjamin and Lois, disillusioned with the state of the UK, decide to move to France and open a B&B.

I read both The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle (published in 2001 and 2004 but set in mid-1970s and late-1990s respectively) but I find myself oddly unable to tell you much at all about what happened in them, other than some of the real historical background they played out against (the only point where the characters' lives intersected that I can remember was when Lois Trotter's then-boyfriend was killed in the Birmingham pub bombings). Perhaps this is because not a great deal actually does happen, a criticism that could probably be levelled at Middle England as well. There's an odd sort of contrast between the low-key personal concerns of the characters and the grand sweep of history that they play out against, and to be honest I'm not sure how well it really works.

One of the obvious problems with writing about Brexit in particular is avoiding the temptation to portray all the Leave voters as frothing racists; all the more difficult because a significant proportion of them undoubtedly are frothing racists. Coe is pretty good at identifying some of the long-term causes of Brexit - Thatcher-era hollowing-out of the industrial heartlands of (mostly) the north and the failure to replace them with anything; the increasingly London-centric focus of investment, the increasing feeling of people in the former industrial areas that they were being ignored by successive governments and therefore had nothing to lose by a destructive lashing-out, however irrational, when offered a rare opportunity to do so via direct democratic means.

The problem, I think. as with any novel that purports to closely track actual history, is avoiding just writing a series of editorials about the real events you're describing, and also convincingly entwining these real events with the lives of your fictional characters in such a way that it they seem to have a real impact. I'm not sure Middle England really carries off this second bit, largely because most of the major characters are too middle-class and comfortably-off to be affected in any fundamental way. To put it another way, anyone who is able to react to Brexit by upping sticks and moving to France to open a B&B with seemingly no pressingly urgent need for it to turn a profit is someone who wasn't going to be too badly affected by it in the first place, even if they'd stayed put.

However: Coe's novels are always intensely readable, the weird fracturing of personal and family relationships that undoubtedly did happen in the aftermath of the referendum when it became apparent that apparently simpatico people had voted in opposite ways is well presented, and most of the characters (Sophie in particular, who is a bit less cosily middle-aged than the rest) are broadly sympathetic. I think my favourite Coe novel is still the slightly odder The House Of Sleep, though.