Jonathan Coe’s novel centers on the lives of a group of classmates at a tony school in Birmingham, England, and though the attention shifts among the different teenagers, Ben Trotter is the protagonist. Although he is not an exemplary student, he entertains lofty ambitions to be a professional musician and writer. As he fitfully pursues his dreams, his secure little world is rocked by disaster when his sister barely survives a pub bombing and his friends endure domestic upheavals of their own.
Paralleling the confusions of the adolescents are the instabilities in their parents’ lives. Doug’s parents separate when his father has a sordid affair with a young woman who suddenly disappears, while Philip’s mother is being wooed by his art teacher. Simultaneously, xenophobia is appearing throughout England, and one boy at school, Steve Richards, a Jamaican emigré, becomes the local victim of British cultural chauvinism. Labor unions are on the wane and the political establishment is showing early signs of collapse.
In the largest sense, this is a Bildungsroman charting the uneasy development of a handful of relatively sheltered teens. The novel brims with adolescent angst and obsessions of one sort or another and often keeps the reader off balance with surprising character developments. Ben, for instance, manages to earn his way into Oxford, Steve Richards’s glowing star quickly plummets to earth, Cicely Boyd reveals surprising depths for a seemingly self-absorbed beauty queen, and Doug Anderton, the child of the working class, discovers a taste for aristocratic affectations. However, unlike a traditional apprentice novel, Coe abruptly ends the narrative before these young destinies are revealed; the book is littered with suggestive hints that Ben and some of the others will not reach their hearts’ desires. Coe has announced a sequel, entitled The Closed Circle, that will continue with events in the late 1990’s.
In some ways The Rotters’ Club can be seen as a more successful prequel to his earlier novel The Winshaw Legacy: Or What a Carve Up! (1994), an acerbic satire of Britain in the 1980’s, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher coming in for especially rough treatment. Coe is equally concerned with his novel as a social document here, and Doug Anderton, in a speech delivered in at a millennial celebration, captures well the spirit of the book and times:
People forget about the 1970’s. They think it was all about wide collars and glam rock, and they get nostalgic about Fawlty Towers and kids TV programmes, and they forget the ungodly strangeness of it, the weird things that were happening all the time. They remember that the unions had real power in those days but they forget how people reacted: all those cranks and military types who talked about forming private armies to restore order and protect property when the rule of law broke down. They forget about the Ugandan Asian refugees who arrived at Heathrow in 1972, and how it made people say that Enoch [Powell] had been right in the late sixties when he warned about rivers of blood, how his rhetoric echoed down the years, right down to a drunken comment Eric Clapton made on stage at the Birmingham Odeon in 1976. They forget that in those days, the National Front sometimes looked like a force to be reckoned with.
Thus the story resembles an adventure or utopian narrative, offering a retrospective glance at a distant, forgotten time and society. As one of the many narrators describes it, “The era they were discussing seemed to belong to the dimmest recesses of history.”
The England that seems so distant is one that was run for decades by the Labour Party and literally controlled by the workers’ unions. Punctuating events at the school are a series of strikes that cripple the nation. The soul of the unions is located in the figure of Bill Anderton, Doug’s father, who is the chief union representative at the British Leyland auto plant outside Birmingham, the principal employer in the area. Bill is frequently depicted struggling with management and as a sage interpreter of executive intentions. His one moment of genuine courage is also the beginning of his personal decline.
In 1977, a number of Pakistani employees at a film processing plant in Grunwich go out on strike for months over a pay dispute. In a show of solidarity, Anderton organizes a trip with some of his Birmingham colleagues to join the Grunwich strikers; however, the peace of the demonstration is broken when police riot and beat Anderton and others. His son later remarks that he was broken...
(The entire section is 1884 words.)