Jonathon Coe’s Number 11 came out at the end of 2015 and at the time of writing very few reviews have been published. For such a highly regarded writer and such an impressive novel, I was absolutely stunned to find that the internet is not raving about Coe’s latest satirical product.
Five stories with interweaving characters depict a dark community over the course of a decade. The characters could easily be our family, friends or celebrities off the TV. I especially enjoyed The Comeback which shows fictional Val Doubleday entering the celebrity jungle and discovering that not every person, not even every celebrity, is treated the same. Each story stands alone but together they create a society which is recognisable but with the flaws highlighted. I’ve never lived in a bubble, I did know these things went on, but having the people and events pushed in front of your face is bound to provoke thoughts that the real world and higher classes inevitably squash.
The synopsis compactly describes the novel. The two lines that particularly resonated with me were “It’s about how 140 characters can make fools of us all” and “It’s about living in a city where bakers need cinemas in their basements and others need food banks down the street”. These absurdities and harsh contrasts are accepted as normal, but why? If I could’ve added my own statement it would be: It’s about perception and the connotations of being in a minority.
Rachel is the major consistent character throughout the novel and she is only a young girl in The Black Tower. Over the course of the book, Rachel grows into a young woman who has seen and learnt so much about the world – in this way she parallels Coe’s readers. Rachel’s friend Alison is a black disabled lesbian, representing, without a doubt, an array of minority groups as well as those living in poverty. Coe illuminates just how someone in Alison’s circumstances is treated by her community and larger society based on not her behaviours, but her personal traits. In contrast to Alison’s character, the Gunn’s (who feature in What A Whopper!) have seemingly limitless money. Aside from their wealth, Coe’s writing led me to imagine the Gunn’s as a white, able-bodied family living in London; aka the “norm”. Not only do they avoid tax as much as possible but they are in the process of building an eleven storey basement, featuring a bowling alley and swimming pool complete with palm trees.
The stories aren’t overtly political, a feat that makes it all Coe’s message all the more convincing as he illustrates the backwards society we still exist in today, which is powered by hegemonic prejudice. Without giving too much away, the ending is sinister and shocking, concluding the novel in a powerful and thought-provoking manner. Right to the last page Number 11 doesn’t disappoint.
You can read the first chapter right here.
Jessikah Hope Stenson