Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim: A Novel / by Jonathan Coe

English satiric novelist Jonathan Coe has said that he writes as a way to connect with people. A self-acknowledged introvert whose own neighbors rarely see him, he sees no other reason why one would turn to writing in the first place and seems rather awed by writers who are extroverts. "Why choose this mode of expression unless more direct modes of expression are unavailable to you for one reason or another? It's an introvert's form, as far as I'm concerned, though maybe that's a rather narrow view." (Laity, Guardian, 2010). Several of his early novels such as The Rotter's Club, loosely based on his boyhood in the seventies, have been adapted to the small screen as TV series. His latest, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sam, follows a lonely middle aged man as he drives a car full of toothbrushes from South London to the Shetland Islands.

Some would say Maxwell Sim is having a bit of a midlife crisis; others might acknowledge that he hasn't enough of a life to warrant one. Forty-one, separated from his wife and stuck in a hapless job as a customer service rep for a department store, Max can't seem to find any meaning, purpose or direction in his life. He's lonely too. Visiting his distant, preoccupited father has been a bit of a downer, his Blackberry-addict daughter ignores him, his best friend no longer returns his calls and the only way he can communicate with his estranged wife is through clandestine e-mails. Of the seventy "friends" on his newly opened Facebook account, none seem like people he'd even want to know. In a drastic attempt to turn things around, Max abruptly quits his job for a new gig where, as part of a gimmicky ad campaign for an oral hygiene company, he must drive a brand-coated Toyota Prius filled with toothbrushes from London to the remote Shetland Islands in north Scotland. Thinking that a change of scenery and an opportunity to travel can recharge his life, he sets off on his little adventure only to encounter more than a few misbegotten individuals and some awkward, disturbing elements from his past. He also seems to be developing an unhealthy fixation with the sultry-sounding voice on his satellite navigation system.

Disconnection and alienation. It's been said more than a few times that these are the bastard children of the digital age where technology has essentially erased the need for physical interaction as part of interpersonal communication. True connection is always elusive in a world where online identities now outpace actual individuals and relationships turnabout in swift fashion--truths no one is more familiar with than Max Sim. Expectedly, nothing very exciting or reinvigorating happens as he directs his little vehicle through the country completely ignoring the designated route he was to have taken. Ironically, the only cherished connection he establishes is with the voice ("Emma") on his satnav. And while he does gain some insight into the nature of his current unhappiness, Max finds little to comfort him and more than a few things (repressed memories, empty lives, angry relatives, etc.) which downright haunt him as he goes on his way. A thoughtful novel, one as introspective as it is darkly comic, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a book which tells a familiar story but engages the reader with fascinating distinction and nuance, ultimately arriving at a subtle realization about humanity and the need for connection which goes far above and beyond the normal mediums. (FIC COE)

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