The epigraph, taken from William Cowper, to Part Four of Jonathan Coe’s engrossing, labyrinthine Number 11 is crucial to understanding where Coe is now as a writer. It refers to one of the book’s central themes: the limitations of satire as a force for change. Who, the poet asks, was ever ‘laughed into reform?/Alas! Leviathan is not so tamed.’ If reform of the gentrified, deeply unequal carnival of vulgarity and privilege that passes as Britain in the early 21st century is Coe’s goal, then he makes a good attempt at it. But a novel is not a polemic and, as with What a Carve Up!, Coe creeps up stealthily, delivering a book bursting with narrative coups and delicious ironies. Presenting a picture of an ailing country close to collapse, despite the apparent health suggested by its millionaires’ mansions and its confidently callous politicians, the book scares rather than laughs us into calling for reform.
Which is not to say Number 11 isn’t funny and riveting in equal measure. Proceeding via his usual method of multiple, tangentially linked storylines, Coe follows two young women, Rachel and Alison, from 2003 to 2015, exploring, with as much brio as Zadie Smith does in NW, their divergent destinies.