The year is 2003. The city is Berlin. And the scene is a revolving restaurant high above Alexanderplatz. Sophie, 18 or so, is talking to Patrick, 18 or so:
"Come with me, then, Patrick. Let's go backwards. Backwards in time, all the way back to the beginning. Back to a country that neither of us would recognize ... ."
"Was it really that different, do you think?"
"Completely different. Just think of it! A world without mobiles or videos or Playstations or even faxes. A world that had never heard of Princess Diana or Tony Blair, never thought for a moment of going to war over Kosovo or Iraq. There were only three television channels in those days, Patrick. Three! And the unions were so powerful that, if they wanted to, they could close one of them down for a whole night. Sometimes people even had to do without electricity. Imagine!"
Well, then, go back, imagine, just as Sophie and Patrick do and just as Jonathan Coe does in his ambitious and very fine new novel The Rotters' Club. The year to start is 1973 and the year to end is 1977, which makes it, Sophie's right, practically the Dark Ages. The country is England, Edward Heath's, soon to be Harold Wilson's, soon to be Margaret Thatcher's England -- an England of miners' strikes, mass immigration, and Enoch Powell, hobbits, maxi skirts, and Rick Wakeman. The city is brown Birmingham.
Sophie's future mother, you'll learn, is Lois, a 16-year-old who's dating a 22-year-old Fred Frith fanatic named Malcolm. The two of them are due for a date with an IRA bomb, but they don't know it -- yet. Paul is Lois' obnoxious preteen brother, a neocon nightmare in the making. Benjamin, 13 or so, is her other brother, a nice kid nicknamed "Bent Rotter" by his buddies at King William's school, "that toff's academy" for the upper-middle-class but underaristocratic sons of Birmingham. Benjamin's a bright kid but a little slow on the uptake zeitgeistwise: oversensitive, overserious, "into" composing lyrical pieces for piano and guitar, "into" Fielding and Conrad and Joyce, a writer in the making, in short, and Oxford-bound, but he doesn't know it -- yet. Their mother is Sheila; their father is Colin, manager at British Leyland Motor Corporation's Birmingham plant. He's got "labour" on his hands and his hands are full. These are the Trotters.
Patrick's mother is Claire, and she's also bright, bright enough to attend King William's sister school for girls and sassy enough to sport some pretty smart lip. Her older sister is the "highly fanciable" Miriam, a typist at British Leyland. Their father is Donald, a clueless disciplinarian; mother, Pamela, is a cypher. These are the Newmans.
Miriam is having an affair with Bill Anderton, shop steward and trade unionist at British Leyland, until he dumps her and Miriam disappears into (or is it out of?) the arms of another man. The Andertons have a son, Doug, a classmate of Benjamin's at King William's. Doug's got music on his mind too and a taste for Roxy Music over Yes. Doug is soon-to-be contributor to New Musical Express, soon to be an ex-virgin courtesy of a London party girl named Ffion ffoulkes [sic], and soon-to-be convert to "the neo-neanderthal dynamism of punk." He is, in short, set to adopt everything Benjamin's version of England is not, but Doug doesn't know it -- yet.
Patrick's father is Philip: Tolkien fanatic, prog-rock enthusiast, and another King William's chum. Philip's father is Sam; his mother is Barbara. These are the Chases, and Barbara is about to embark on an affair with a pretentious wordmonger and fool by the name of Miles Plumb (nickname: "Sugar Plum Fairy"), art instructor to Philip, Doug, Benjamin, the class clown Sean Harding, and Steve Richards (nickname: "Rastus"), King William's one black student, a Jamaican and whipping boy to bad apple R.J. Culpepper, "junior rugger captain, junior cricket captain, would-be athletics champion and long-standing object of derision," just so you know from the outset that Culpepper's a creep.
And you are ... probably lost.
So be lost, because there's seemingly no end to the story, make that stories, and to the inventiveness inside The Rotters' Club. Just as there seems to be no end to Coe's widening circle of revolving, evolving featured players and minor walk-ons. No end to Coe's index of pop-culture esoterica. (Quick: What rock band had an album that gives this book its title?) No end to Coe's sly but telling references to British postwar politics. No end to Coe's combination of high seriousness and high comedy. And especially no end to Coe's bag of narrative tricks: third- to first-person switcheroos; interior monologues; diary entries; inane student-newspaper reviews, letters to the editor, and one Q and A; stories within stories (e.g., a family of Danish Jews' narrow escape from Nazi henchmen during World War II); a letter dated 1981; a speech dated 1999; and in the book's closing section, a single sentence running 22 pages, which already tells you it's got to come from Benjamin, and it does, post-sex with bombshell Cicely Boyd and Ulysses-like, but what it tells of I'll leave readers to discover or for Patrick to explain.
That may take Patrick some time, because his side of the story, as promised to Sophie in that Berlin restaurant, is set to come to you in a sequel to The Rotters' Club called The Closed Circle. I'd say that gives American readers a good year to get unlost, the rotters straight, and the word out on a high talent, Jonathan Coe. Due date for the update: 2003?
By Dan Franck
Grove Press, 422 pp., $27.50
For those with zero tolerance for art or literary history but a tad interest in modernism and/or the lifestyles of the down-and-out and not yet famous, look: the place to be was Paris, the beginning of the 20th century, the neighborhood known as Montmartre, and a dump called the Bateau Lavoir. Pablo Picasso was living there and already making out like Picasso even if the world didn't know it and even if he did have to keep his Demoiselles d'Avignon rolled up and underfoot. But Guillaume Apollinaire knew it. So too the circle of Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Ambroise Vollard, Leo and Gertrude Stein, André Derain, Georges Braque, and assorted other pivotal figures, half-lights, and hangers-on whose names you may have once heard in college, then you, like Picasso, split.
And then, on the other side of the Seine, there was Montparnasse, because that's where Alfred Jarry was, because that's where the poets were, and, after World War I, that's where the scene shifted and painters were. And then there was Dada and André Breton and Surrealism and Man Ray and Kiki, and already you're thinking, Man Ray who and Kiki what. Man Ray the photographer's Kiki. Kiki of Montparnasse. A woman who, after reading about her in Dan Franck's Bohemian Paris, could surely have kicked Madonna's ass in the gutter any day, and it's a wonder Madonna hasn't leeched off her look already. And as to antics? Despite Madonna's global dominion, I still hand it to Kiki.
And, with little or no dominion whatsoever, hand it to Chaim Soutine and Amadeo Modigliani, who in these pages register as major sufferers, not to mention major painters. The poverty, the alcoholism, the drug abuse, and the hard knocks generally put these two in a class by themselves, and, believe me, it's a heady class. Franck's book makes it crystal-clear. Less clear: what made these guys, all these guys (they're all guys), really tick artistically, made them get a century into gear. Analytical, however, Franck's book is not. Readable it is. And useful, if only to remind you to thank God you've got heat and never had a lightweight like Jean Cocteau breathing down your neck.