Sequences of novels that follow characters through a long period of time are popular with writers and readers because they allow fiction to represent the experience of living. In Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–75) and John Updike’s Rabbit quintet (1960–2000), the decades spanned allow minor characters to become unexpectedly relevant – and deaths to feel like real losses – in the way that they do in life. Sue Townsend’s nine books about Adrian Mole, published between 1982 and 2009, introduce the hero as a teenager neurotically measuring his penis with a ruler and leave him as a middle-aged man with prostate cancer.
Such projects encourage readers to think: ‘What are they doing now?’ Many admirers of Jonathan Coe’s Townsend- and Powell-influenced The Rotters’ Club (2001) and its sequel, The Closed Circle (2004), which followed a group of Birmingham schoolmates from the Heath and Wilson period of the 1970s to the Blairite 2000s, must have wondered at the fate of the cast in the Brexit era.
In an author’s note at the end of Middle England, Coe admits that he had no previous intention of creating a Rotters’ trilogy, but, keen to fictionalise the strange days of the UK’s attempt to leave the EU, came to see the logic of reusing established characters. Certainly, there’s an attractive neatness in the third book completing a circle started by the first, which was set during the period of the 1975 referendum that joined Britain politically to continental Europe.
The major creative decision in each instalment of sequential fiction is which old characters to keep and what new ones to introduce. True to the passage of time, Coe kills off one of the known personae, whose funeral appears in the prologue. Happily, Benjamin Trotter, whom Coe has admitted is an alter ego, survives, now in his early fifties, living in rural semi-retirement and still working on his debut novel, a planned fusion of music and prose, which, running to five thousand pages, he transports in two holdalls. Trotter’s old school friend Doug is a political columnist, although, in the way of modern journalism, doing much more work for far less money.
In a biographical surprise that recalls the apotheosis of the mediocrity Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time, Culpepper, a despised boy at school, has become a significant global figure. Another newly prominent presence is Sophie, Benjamin’s niece, an academic whose rapid but troubled relationship with Ian, an instructor on a speed awareness course, is a major subplot.
That strand is classic Coe, touching on the theme, recurrent throughout his work, of chance and contingency: if Sophie, rushing, hadn’t pressed too hard on the accelerator, she would never have met Ian, and if a children’s party hadn’t overrun in another part of Birmingham, she would have been unable to get his phone number from a colleague. But the strains between a couple with widely different interests also subtly establish what becomes the novel’s major theme: the divisions between Britons of different backgrounds.
There is, notes ‘leftish’ political commentator Doug, ‘an incredible fault line running right through British society’. The reader understands, although Doug doesn’t, the irony of his writing a column about social inequalities from the study of a house in Chelsea that is valued at £6 million (note to aspiring journalists: this was funded not from his op-ed pieces but by his marriage to an heiress).
Coe traces the fracturing of Britain from April 2010 to September 2018 (a date bravely some months after early reading copies were circulated). An obvious problem for an author of fiction set in the recent past is calculating how much memory-nudging detail readers need. Coe is surely shamingly right to calculate that the 2011 riots will be forgotten, and he vividly re-creates them. The 2012 Diamond Jubilee concert is cleverly used as the televisual background to a splendid scene in which Benjamin’s vast postmodern masterwork becomes, during an editing session, a conventional novella.
Coe’s earliest novels, The Accidental Woman (1987) and A Touch of Love (1989), felt influenced by the neologistic tone and playful forms of Martin Amis, whose Money (1984) underwrote much young male English fiction at the time. An almost 14,000-word sentence in The Rotters’ Club revealed a continuing interest in experimentation, but in recent books Coe’s writing follows more closely the model of Martin’s father, Kingsley. Although the Amises were clearly divided by generation and politics, the central separation between them as novelists was prose style, especially their attitude to cliché. Kingsley would use a well-worn formulation if, as one of his characters might say, it hit the nail on the head; Martin’s sentences favoured, as he might have put it, more gymnastic periphrasis.
Middle England echoes the work of the elder Amis in its willingness to call one character a ‘leading light’ and a ‘doyenne’ in the same sentence. The line comes not in dialogue, where such vocabulary might be true to a specific character, but as part of Coe’s omniscient narration, in which, on other occasions, we visit a ‘picture-postcard village’ and people have ‘bitten the bullet’ and failed ‘to cut much ice’. Coe is also coy about sex, always favouring the formulation ‘they made love’, although, as Updike argued and demonstrated, the precise ways in which people approach sex are character-revealing.
Such low-key prose may be the reason that Coe, despite much critical admiration, has always been overlooked when it comes to the Booker Prize. In what may be a cathartic fictionalisation of Coe’s pain, Middle England features a famous Booker-winning novelist, Lionel Hampshire (in another tremendous set piece, taking place on a cultural cruise), and sees Benjamin’s novel long-listed for the award.
Coe, though, far outranks many Booker winners in his talent for characterisation and captivating narrative. Even though we always broadly know what will happen in Britain during the period described, Coe keeps us eager to learn exactly how it occurs for Benjamin, Sophie, Culpepper and the rest. Let’s hope Coe keeps returning to these characters.