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The Rotters' Club - Jonathon Coe (Penguin)

It seems to me that the BritLit scene is uncommonly healthy at the moment. Hanif Kureshi is on blisteringly productive form, Alan Warner is threatening a masterpiece, and newcomers like Zadie Smith are highly promising. In amongst all this talent Jonathon Coe might have gone unnoticed, had not The Rotters' Club been quite so good.

Anthony Burgess categorised novels as "A" and "B" types. "A" novels are conventional, in that they are concerned with plot and character development and this is pretty much the grand 19th century tradition (which more or less peaked with Tolstoy's perfect epics over a century ago). "B" novels are trickier and more experimental, more 20th Century and would range from all of Joyce through the nouvelle vague (primarily Eldritch favourite Robbe-Grillet) up to the post-modernist giants of today's scene (de Lillo et al). "A" novelists were "talented". "B" novelists liked to think they were geniuses. Clever people tended to sneer at "A" novels and the outmoded concepts such as entertainment and readability.

Whilst there remains much reactionary bilge being trotted out and over-praised under the A-novel banner (Sebastian Faulks, Captain Corelli's Mandolin), it is noticeable that the Young Turks of the British scene write fairly A novels. Whether this is a conscious reaction against the opaque bulk of the American post-modernists (ultimately does Underworld really have anything to say?) or not doesn't really matter: point is, the English novel once again is beginning to describe things that I can recognise and empathise with. Coe has a novel view on this: "The spectacle of so many writers - myself included - continuing to work within a form that has patently played itself out strikes me as rather funny". And, given that Coe's hero is B. S. Johnson (the 60s novelist who so despised linear narratives that he once published a box containing loose leaf pages, instructing the reader to read them in whatever order he chose, and then committed suicide at 39), Coe's latest novel, The Rotters' Club, and its excellent predecessor The House of Sleep, must seem conventional and predictable to him.

The Rotters' Club, centres around four boys growing up in Birmingham in the late 1970s. Immediately obvious is that Coe has got the period detail absolutely accurate, and despite mining a rich vein of comedy from the time and place, avoids parody. It is easy to forget how different Britain was under Callaghan's government, an era of militant unions and frequent strikes at Longbridge (the sprawling and inefficient British Leyland factory); of endemic, casual racism and IRAM bombings; appalling music (in one of the funniest passages, Tales From Topographic Oceans is superbly fitted-up in an over-enthusiastic school magazine review); the appalling narrow-mindedness of the post-war generation ('Jack, who went to the South of France for his holidays, ordered steak and chips with mushrooms on the side, a touch of sophistication that was not lost on the others'). This is an age of three TV channels, Sounds magazine, brown, Enoch Powell, flying pickets. Looming menacingly is an absolute brat of a younger brother, a strident Thatcherite by the age of fourteen, who looks like he will come to the forefront in the eagerly awaited sequel, The Closed Circle.

But as the novel progress and the characters grow older, so the tone deepens. The four main characters, initially fairly indistinguishable, begin to take on individual characteristics and drift apart: the class joker increasingly looks immature and doomed never to leave Birmingham; one gets into punk and leaves for London; the main character, Ben Trotter (based on Coe himself, I suspect) is a dreamer and is unhappily in (unrequited) love.

The Rotters Club has been criticised for an unsureness of touch: that it doesn't know "what to mock and what to mourn". But this misses the point: it mocks and mourns at the same time. The things we are fond of can also be absurd - isn't this the essence of pathos? The music of Coe's youth was patently ridiculous and pretentious, but the passage describing Ben Trotter's watching Hatfield and the North at Barbarella's captures all the first gig nervous excitement and growing awareness of something bigger out there. Less capable is the closing thirty page stream-of-consciousness, twenty-thousand words without a full stop!, but even here there is much that works wonders.

The rites of passage Bildungsroman (and Rotters is more Kunstlerroman anyway) has been done to death, but Coe succeeds through the quality of his writing, and how accurately he remembers that time of life when anything seems possible. This is the most enjoyable and readable British novel since Iain Banks's The Crow Road. I could go on (and already have) but really all that needs to be said is: "Buy it, Read it."

Chris Sampson, May 2002

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