The Rotters' Club

by Jonathan Coe

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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...

(This entire section contains 1884 words.)

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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 by the experience, and when the new chief executive of the auto plant takes over and fires 12,500 “redundant” workers, Anderton can barely offer any opposition. “Oh, yes, there had been plenty of days, good days, and not so long ago, when he truly believed that the struggle could be won; but the decade was old now and he was growing old with it, and he knew that those days would never come back. . . . ”

England of the 1970’s became the home for waves of displaced subjects from the colonies, and Steve Richards becomes their representative, a bright boy and brilliant athlete with grand ambitions. Richards patiently suffers repeated racial epithets, in particular the nickname “Rastus,” until eventually he erupts in response to the humiliation and is expelled for injuring one of his tormenters. Later he is found working at a menial job in a fast food restaurant, and in one of the novel’s crueler ironies, Ben, now working at a bank, denies an ill-advised loan to that very shop, which would result in a modest raise for his former classmate. Like most of England’s colonized, Richards is destined for a life of thwarted hopes and economic exploitation.

Hovering on the periphery of British life is the Irish Republican Army (IRA) campaign of civilian bombings. The characters pay the movement no mind until the Birmingham pub explosion that kills Lois’s fiancé and leaves her an emotional cripple. Sean Harding, the school’s resident lord of misrule and politically incorrect commentator, reveals himself to be half Irish and suffering an aching sense of cultural inferiority. This postcolonial dilemma is revealed in one of the novel’s most awkward set pieces, a diatribe delivered by an ardent Welsh nationalist.

Does it surprise you that the Scots distrust you and the Welsh despise you? Do you think the native Indians of America, and the Maoris of New Zealand, and the aborigines of Australia and Tasmania will ever forgive you for all but exterminating them with murder and famine and disease? You don’t fool the world, you know, not any more, with your oh-so-charming diffidence and politeness and English irony and English self- deprecation. Ask any free-thinking Welshman or Scotsman or Irishman what he thinks of the English and you will get the same answer. You are a cruel and bloody and greedy and acquisitive people. A nation of butchers and vagabonds. Butchers and vagabonds, I tell you!

As the unions, the immigrants, and the IRA disrupt British calm, The Rotters’ Club charts the rise of an arch- conservative movement. Repeated references to the vitriol and racial exclusionism of Enoch Powell and the growing support for the National Front, a neo-fascist England-for-Englishmen campaign, swirl through pamphlets distributed at the plant and student commentaries in the school paper. A largely peripheral character, Roy Slayter, a worker at the auto factory, embodies the nastiness of these social movements. When Sean Harding writes an ironic article supporting the National Front, one of the student editors admits that while repellant, such rhetoric is oddly attractive, even logical, and thus accounts for the perverse influence that such a movement briefly enjoyed in England.

Still another potent social influence of the time was British popular music, and the novel revels in the glorious pretentiousness of avant-garde bands like Henry Cow and Hatfield and North, groups that played so-called progressive rock. The work is in fact named for one of the latter band’s songs, and young Ben attends one of their concerts and is quickly converted to the delusion that they represent the future of popular music.

One of the novel’s most hilarious scenes occurs when Ben and Philip Chase assemble their long-awaited band—Gandalf’s Pikestaff, absurdly named in reference to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937)—for a first rehearsal. Philip presents a meandering fourteen-minute rock symphony that quickly bores the other musicians, provoking a punk rock smash-up that inaugurates the locally successful career of The Maws of Doom. Coe clearly knows his 1970’s rock and roll and has great fun recalling long, and deservedly, forgotten bands that briefly seemed extraordinarily relevant.

Besides the detailed character portraits and the pointed social analysis, The Rotters’ Club is an engagingly experimental narrative. While not a poster child for literary postmodernism, the work is remarkably polyvalent, with a host of narrators guiding the reader through its social labyrinth. First of all, it is a frame tale told by two children, one of Lois and one of Philip, who meet accidentally and puzzle over the oddities of a far-away time from a 2003 perspective. The central narrator, Sophie, Lois’s daughter, is a fictional ventriloquist, assuming a range of voices and lacing her story with a host of curious documents.

Among these pieces are grandiloquent seduction letters from the pretentious art teacher to Philip’s mother, a crossword puzzle that utterly befuddles Philip’s father, and Lois’s therapeutic journal entries as she recovers from her traumatic loss. However, the submissions to the student newspaper are the most delightful, among them scribblings of teenage outrage over the selection of school prefects and a letter- perfect evocation of an adolescent music review. The most outrageously hilarious are a series of letters to the editor from a fictitious social reactionary, penned by Sean Harding, in which he lampoons class pretensions and smug social complacency.

The last chapter, inspired by a song by an obscure band, the High Llamas, is a clever adolescent counterpoint to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). “Green Coaster” is a thirty-two-page, single- sentence paean to hope and desire fulfilled. Ben exults over his relationship with the elusive Cicely Boyd, their first sexual experience, and the presumably promising future that awaits him at university. The prose is so exultant and the emotions so palpable that the characters in the final section of the frame tale marvel at Ben’s delight, “He was lucky, wasn’t he, to have felt that way? Lucky Uncle Benjamin! To have known happiness like that, and to have held on to it, even for a moment.”

The Rotters’ Club is a remarkably adroit, incisive satire that manages to be humane and patiently understanding. There is no mistaking Coe’s leftist sympathies, yet he finds the vulnerable, human core behind each of his characters’ actions. This is an exercise in both revisionist history and postcolonial interrogation that manages to remain amusing and consistently insightful.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (January 1-15, 2002): 806.

Kirkus Reviews 69 (December 15, 2001): 1700.

Library Journal 127 (February 1, 2002): 130.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 24, 2002, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 24, 2002): 10.

Publishers Weekly 249 (January 28, 2002): 268.

School Library Journal 48 (May, 2002): 179.

The Spectator, February 24, 2001, p. 37.

The Times Literary Supplement, February 23, 2001, p. 23.

The Washington Post Book World, March 3, 2002, p. 7.