"Only disconnect." That rueful inversion of E.M. Forster's dictum by the protagonist of Jonathan Coe's seriocomic ninth novel serves as a fitting motto for the story of a man struggling to come to grips with the evolving, often elusive rules of emotional engagement in the 21st century.
Forty-eight-year-old Maxwell Sim ("like the card you put in your mobile phone") is an everyman suffering from clinical depression severe enough to earn him a six-month leave from his grim job as the "After-Sales Customer Liaison Officer" at a central London department store. Hoping to restore Max's life to something resembling normalcy, a friend recruits him for a position with a company that manufactures eco-friendly toothbrushes (one of them made of wood, with bristles of boar's hair). Newly-hired Max embarks on a quixotic journey to the Shetland Islands, dispatched, with three other salesmen, to the four corners of the British Isles in a publicity stunt designed to promote the company's slogan, "We reach furthest!"
Instead of offering Max relief from his predicament, the trip north is a painful trek through the blasted landmarks of his past. He stops at the apartment his father abandoned for Australia more than 20 years earlier yet refuses to sell, visits the parents of a childhood friend who has severed contact with him, and shares a dinner with his teenage daughter in which they spend more time sending text messages than talking.
Soon, Max's most intimate relationship is the one he develops with the voice of the GPS system in his Prius, a woman he names "Emma." Driving deeper into the ruggedly beautiful Scottish Highlands in his ultramodern vehicle (an environment that's the perfect 21st-century marriage of technology and total isolation), he has ample time to reflect on his plight, as he struggles to understand "how the concept of friendship was evolving in the light of new technologies." He imagines satellites "thousands of miles up in the sky, looking down on me and millions like me, people rushing around here and there on their individual, everyday, ultimately pointless errands." And he obsesses over the story of Donald Crowhurst, a British amateur sailor who faked reports of his position in an attempt to win an around-the-world race and whose life ended in madness and suicide.
Though we're inside Max's head (often a pretty desolate place) for most of the journey, there's relief provided in three revealing glimpses of his life from other perspectives: a short story written by his estranged wife, Caroline; an autobiographical essay authored by Alison, the older sister of his closest childhood friend; and a memoir by his father, a librarian and failed poet, that offers a depressing insight into the circumstances of his son's conception ("Just when I was starting to feel that my life couldn't get any more disappointing," Max remarks, "I now learn that I never should've had one in the first place."). Counterbalancing Max's unreliability as a narrator, these accounts flesh out his biography and serve as mileposts of a sort on the path to his current plight.
But for Max, the episode that best dramatizes the chasm that separates the life he's living from the one he desperately wishes for himself is the tableau offered by a Chinese mother and daughter he encounters in a Sydney, Australia restaurant where he's dining one evening, a few weeks before he departs on his disastrous journey. After their dishes are cleared away, they engage in a spirited game of cards, their obvious pleasure in each other's company becoming for him "a sort of totem, a symbol of everything that a real relationship between two human beings should be."
Max's almost heroic attempt to transform his longing to realize this vision of a brighter future he can only see through a clouded pane of glass into a reality flows into the novel's moving final pages, ones that inject a metafictional note that evokes the Will Ferrell movie Stranger than Fiction. There will be those who will object to Coe's authorial choice, but it offers an opportunity to reflect on all that has gone before in the novel.
Maxwell Sim's tale is a story about the sometimes desperate attempt to connect and the pain of missed connections, the reality of our isolation in a world of instant messaging, Facebook friends and Twitter followers who, even with their omnipresence, won't permit many of us to escape the feeling that we're lonelier than ever. Despite the pedestrian quality of his existence (‘"Here lies Maxwell Sim," he imagines his tombstone will read. "He was a pretty ordinary bloke, really.'"), by the time his journey ends Max turns out to be a sympathetic traveling companion. Maybe because, if we're honest enough to admit it, we have to concede that we see more than a bit of ourselves in him.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on April 18, 2011
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim