Thursday, March 17, 2011

On (Finally!) Meeting Jonathan Coe. . .

I've been working at Random House for ten years now, and in that time I've been incredibly lucky and privileged to be able to meet so many terrific and talented authors.  But this week has been really special.  Those who know me well or have heard me book talk over the years, know that I absolutely adore the writing of Jonathan Coe and he is always my number one recommendation among contemporary (and living!) writers to read.  He's also been at the top of the list of writers I have wanted to meet. Well, he was in Toronto this week and read to a packed audience at Harbourfront last night, from his latest novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. I was thrilled; chalk one off the bucket list for me!

The novel's hero is a man going through a mid-life crisis. His wife has left him, he has an uneasy relationship with his father, and his career is in a rut. Worse of all, no one seems to care, especially the seventy friends he has on Facebook.  To give his life a much needed jolt, he takes a job with a company promoting toothbrushes and agrees to drive a Toyota Prius to the far reaches of the Shetland Islands.  The novel opens with him being found by police on the side of the road, naked in his car, suffering from hypothermia, and with four hundred toothbrushes in the boot.  That's the destination; how he got there and what will happen next, is the very entertaining narrative journey.  Coe excels in writing a scene that delivers an initial comic punch, only to be followed by an uncomfortable and poignant bruising of lasting desperation, sadness or just plain social awkwardness.  He demonstrated this talent in the two excerpts he read last night.  The first was a demonstration of how NOT to strike up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to you on a long flight; the second was about Maxwell's growing attraction to the voice of the GPS system in his car, christened Emma in honour of both Jane Austen's heroine and the actress Emma Thompson (and for those wondering about the reference to the sex scene with Jeff Goldblum, you can find it in the movie The Tall Guy - it is pretty amazing).  He nailed the reading (delivered in that wonderfully self-deprecating manner that the Brits do so well) to the delight and laughter of the appreciative audience, and I'm delighted to report that he was as charming and lovely in person as I'd hoped he would be.

I love the variety not only of subject matter, but the style and tone in Coe's novels.  If you've never read him before and are in the mood for something comic and satirical, start with The Winshaw Legacy, The Rotters' Club or  The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (especially if the world's obsession with social media is driving you crazy).  For something a bit surreal and spooky, try The House of Sleep.  And for something a bit more dramatic, with a beautiful love story at its core, pick up perhaps my favourite of his novels (it keeps changing), The Rain Before it Falls - his tribute to Rosamund Lehmann and many of the other amazing and forgotten writers brought back into print by Virago Modern Classics.

And if you happen to be anywhere near Bridport, England from April 13-17th - check out the From Page to Screen Film Festival that focuses purely on literary adaptations.  Coe acted as curator and he'll be there in conversation with Kazuo Ishiguro talking about the films made from his novels Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day.  There's a pretty great line-up of films being shown. I really wish I could be there to see They Were Sisters, made in 1945, starring the always fabulous James Mason and based on the novel by Dorothy Whipple, gorgeously brought back into print by Persephone Books.  

No comments: