A subplot running through Jonathan Coe’s most recent novel, Middle England, involves a feud between two garish children’s clowns that culminates in a brawl before astonished partygoers. The conflict seems marginal to Coe’s tale, set during the years leading up to and just after the Brexit vote. But the image is a visual metaphor for the culture war that the referendum has brought to the surface and broadly signifies, one that stages Coe’s verdict on England today: in need of a sober national reckoning, the country instead plays out an embarrassing farce. The absurd tableau also implicitly registers a question confronting novelists today: What modes of storytelling can accommodate and engage with Brexit as an event and condition?
Amid the baffling sensation of living in seemingly unprecedented times, then, novelists are attempting to write about an unrecognizable nation and its incomprehensible situation. For his part, Coe remains committed to his distinctive brand of realism, conventional albeit with sporadic flourishes, such as Middle England’s long stream-of-consciousness passage. An alternative can be found in Olivia Laing’s Crudo, which mixes genres and problematizes realist representations of subjectivity. Together the novels may be considered divergent models for how fiction comprehends and represents national condition and identity in tumult—yet they offer complementary visions of Brexit England and likewise pose self-reflexive questions about the contemporary novel itself.
Middle England follows an ensemble cast of characters whose intersecting lives are enmeshed with recent historical flashpoints: the novel opens with the 2010 elections and goes on to cover the London Olympics, 2011 riots, Jo Cox’s murder, and, of course, the 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union, which dominates Coe’s picture of the present. While Middle England’s treatment of Brexit might seem limited by how it ignores the other UK nations involved, not to mention the European community also implicated, by focusing his attention on England, Coe implicitly lays ownership of Brexit at his country’s feet.
As Middle England winds its way through the headline events of the past few years, it uses them as opportunities to meditate on the essential, elemental forces behind the Brexit moment. Like other books in Coe’s body of work, this one charts the erosion of the broadly felt communitarian values and sensibilities of the postwar welfare state.1
The erosion is construed in forms of personal loss. For instance, when a marriage strains over Brexit, the couple’s counselor observes of their grievances, “What’s interesting … is that neither of you mentioned politics. As if the referendum wasn’t about Europe at all. Maybe something much more fundamental and personal was going on.” Brexit, Coe suggests, is the abject politics a nation gets after its social solidarities and any sense of collective responsibility have been allowed to wear away. The development of this theme is centered on the aspiring novelist Benjamin Trotter, the principal character in Coe’s chronicle and an obvious proxy for the author. In Middle England, Benjamin finds himself at the crossroads of middle age. He and his fellow 50-somethings must recalibrate their expectations in the face of careers and marriages ending, of children becoming adults and parents dying. The novel’s title aligns the changes of this transitional period in life with England’s current national experience.
Likewise, Middle England puts Brexit and other recent, once unimaginable events in terms of cross-generational befuddlement. Coe’s middle-aged characters cringe at their elders’ overt racism and unfocused anger, as when one outspoken Little Englander, Helena, writes vituperative letters to her local paper that scoff at the perceived injustices of “political correctness.” Such hostile behavior finds an eerie counterpart in that of the younger generations. Helena’s otherwise easygoing son, Ian, in his early 30s, tries to temper his mother’s outspoken xenophobia, but when he misses a promotion at work he bemoans the allegedly preferential treatment that he insists his colleague, a woman of color, must have received. If Helena expresses pure white supremacy, Ian lashes out against a loss of privilege and the stress of precarity.
Brexit, Coe suggests, is the abject politics a nation gets after its social solidarities and any sense of collective responsibility have been allowed to wear away.
Benjamin and his cohort sit between these generations, confused by both the young’s and the old’s quickness to rage and attribution of ill intentions to putative enemies. Such a disposition is found in Benjamin’s senile father, Colin, an avatar for an older population’s unreasoned reaction to multicultural Britain, but also mirrored in the child of Benjamin’s friend Doug Anderton. Doug is a lifelong left-winger whose politics inform his journalism, but for Coriander, Doug’s distinctively named, highly privileged, and ardent Corbynite daughter, Doug’s values are hopelessly hollow. At university, Coriander’s confrontational identity politics lead her to upend the life of a new lecturer—Sophie, who is Benjamin’s niece and a key character—with an accusation of transphobia. By stressing how the allegation negatively affects Sophie and making the dispute itself a resolvable misunderstanding between the lecturer and her trans student, Coe might appear to dismiss so-called “social justice warriors” as overzealous antagonists, little better than cranky old racists.
Yet Coe strives to avoid false equivalences and, in the end, the novel’s sympathies reside with the young. Despite the disruptions to her career, Sophie does not harbor ill will toward her accuser. When Sophie sees Coriander at a university tribunal, she is “unnerved” by the student’s “surly” demeanor, but notes that “her knowledge of university regulations and equal ops legislation was impressive.” Likewise, Doug is exasperated to no end by his daughter, but in a telling passage he admits to himself that “he was the one oppressed by the permanent sense of owing an apology: to her, in the first instance, and then to all her friends and contemporaries.” In this moment, Doug sees that his daughter’s fury is directed “at the world that his generation had bequeathed to her.” His need for forgiveness leads to his realization that “it was time to learn from her.”
Here we get the sense that it is the middle-aged characters who are truly out of touch. At the start of the novel, Doug confesses to Benjamin that his relative affluence, thanks to a wealthy ex-wife, has left him detached from the news he covers. He explains, “That resentment, that sense of hardship. I don’t feel it. I’m just a spectator.” The political journalist Doug senses that his spectatorship of hardship from afar “shows up in [his] writing.” Something similar happens to the aspiring novelist Benjamin, whose huge ambitions inhibit his productivity. He finally abandons his unwieldy dream project, editing it down into a slim autobiographical novel that earns him some modest success. But instinctively he knows and accepts “that his well of creativity was dry” and that “he would never write again.” At novel’s end, Benjamin relocates to France to become a writing tutor. The move may allow him to skirt responsibility, but, like Doug learning from his daughter, Benjamin’s fresh step involves passing the torch to fresh perspectives and talents. The times demand that new voices be heard.
One might be tempted to take Laing as such a new voice: she is about a generation younger than Coe, and Crudo is her debut novel. Yet she is an acclaimed writer of nonfiction who, like Coe, has a deserved reputation as a cultural commentator. In this sense, they are more alike than not. Still, Laing provides a different type of engagement with Brexit Britain, putting it in a globalized context and, as her title’s wordplay implies, offering a raw impression.
To obtain its starkness, Laing draws liberally from events happening in her life and the world during the politically turbulent summer of 2017, leading Crudo to be described as “autofiction.” Laing herself has expressed uneasiness about the term, insisting that a blend of authorial self with fictive material is at some level intrinsic to the novel generally. Yet the question of authorial identity is foregrounded in Crudo, beginning with its striking opening sentence: “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married.” The disorienting shift from third- to first-person narration troubles our sense of novelistic voice, allowing for a double vision that perceives Laing’s “true” voice as belonging to the author of text coexisting with but also separate from the narrative voice of Kathy. This doubled narrative voice ends up trebled when the reader gathers that Laing’s Kathy is patterned on not only Laing herself, but also the deceased American writer Kathy Acker, whose exact words are inserted (yet scrupulously cited) throughout the novel.
Like Middle England, Crudo depicts contemporary experience as bewildering, but unlike Coe’s evenly paced movement through historical events of the past decade, steadily escalating in their outrageousness, Laing’s book gives a frenetic account of four months in which momentous breaking news stories seemed to be occurring too rapidly to comprehend them. Early in the novel, Kathy is at a party in New York City on the evening of May 9, hours after US president Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey; a fellow guest says, “What blows my mind is that we’ll be talking about this in years to come, what we were doing, but we’ll know how it panned out.” In other words, Laing’s characters, like Crudo itself, struggle to make sense of the present while in the present. Kathy contrasts this unmoored relation to time by recalling the recent past: “She missed Obama. … She missed the sense of time as something serious and diminishing, she didn’t like living in the permanent present of the id.” And the id that bigly shapes the experience of the present is, of course, Trump.
Trump and US-based politics are in fact everywhere in the novel, though Laing is English and much of Crudo is set in England. Coe only mentions Trump in a perfunctory exchange—“‘I don’t like Trump, do you?’ ‘Nope … Can’t stand the bloke.’”—but the crass current US president looms large for Laing. Indeed, in Crudo, Brexit and Grenfell are not only aligned with but overshadowed by Trump and Charlottesville. Laing’s understanding of the Trump-Brexit axis is distilled in the novel’s epigraph, a Trump tweet from October 3, 2012, that reads, “The cheap 12 inch sq. marble tiles behind speaker at UN always bothered me. I will replace with beautiful large marble slabs if they ask me.” Trump’s politicized tackiness here threatens to tarnish the international body. The insight into Trump’s effect on global political culture is put in terms of aesthetics—evocatively so, since Crudo is largely concerned with the appearance that the contemporary novel should take.
Laing’s use of a tweet as her novel’s epigraph speaks to her formal innovations. Crudo’s fast-paced, autobiographical, free-association prose conjures an impression of social media; Laing even tends to cut nonessential punctuation, thereby incorporating the stylistic and rhetorical patterns of online communication into her novel’s very texture. Twitter here becomes a formal template for the 21st-century novel, a move that captures the sensory overload of contemporary experience.
Yet Laing seems to take for granted that the hyper-mediated, worldly, news-obsessed condition her frantic prose captures is a commonly shared experience, which bleeds into an assumption that the imperiled cosmopolitanism of her Kathy-Laing hybrid replicates or relates to a universal experience. When Kathy reflects on missing Obama, she reflexively adds, “Everyone missed Obama.” Given the global rise of the far right that is Crudo’s backdrop, the blithe assertion that all share Kathy and her set’s longing for the technocratic, neoliberal centrism of the Obama years seems misplaced. With Twitter as template, Laing risks reproducing the platform’s susceptibility to blinkered self-absorption.
Kathy may consider Twitter her “scrying glass,” but social media inevitably filters whose thoughts are accessed. In a revealing remark on the podcast Literary Friction, Laing speculates that her novel’s wild movements, caused by its characters’ glances at their phones, ranging from “romantic moments, or very luxurious moments, to the horror of other people’s lives,” may unsettle readers, but, she maintains, such is “reality.” Her subjects are therefore the mediated witnesses of horror, not those who live it; the horror seems to come as much from an interruption of luxury as from the suffering itself. Crudo discloses, inadvertently it seems, a gulf between victims of the age’s depredations and those global citizens who watch from a distance. Kathy admits that the volatile news cycle “didn’t feel actual, that was the problem. It felt like it happened inside her computer. … If she walked away from her laptop what was there: a garden, birches, that Malcolm XXX man chatting in the queue.” This idyllic setting drives home the gap between Kathy and a world she views with morbid fascination, one that she can shut out at will.
The narrative voice of Laing’s “Crudo” seems to insist on its inherent representativeness.
In its aim to reproduce the fractured condition of 21st-century experience in its coarsest immediacy, Crudo makes great strides toward bringing the novel up to speed with contemporary life and communication technologies. At the same time, as we have seen, by taking social media as a model, Crudo inherits some of the solipsism of the online self. Like Coe’s Doug, Laing’s Kathy is a mere spectator to hardship. And yet: Doug at least fears his exemption from the travails he witnesses limits his ability to write about those experiences accurately and meaningfully; Kathy, who proclaims “she can be anyone” via writing, for “on the page the I dissolves,” is far less circumspect. The narrative voice of Crudo seems to insist on its inherent representativeness.
Coe’s Middle England is less confident in this regard: its finale in France signals the author’s recognition that his perspective is partial and insufficient. In the closing scene, Benjamin’s friends and family jubilantly toast, “Fuck Brexit!” But the joy is undermined when one of them, “after a moment’s reflection,” points out the obvious: “There are six English people here, and not a single person who voted to leave? Not a very representative selection.” Laing wonders what a novel that truly represents the present moment might look like, but Coe does something similar for the novelist. To this point, in a recent interview Coe muses, “I think probably the age of the great, white, middle-aged male writer is over and that’s all to the good.” Coe and his counterpart, the creatively exhausted Benjamin, fit squarely into the author’s profile of the writer whose time has passed.
Here we might return to Coe’s staging of Brexit as the spectacle of two sparring clowns, Baron Brainbox and Doctor Daredevil—who when offstage go by Charlie and Duncan. The grudge between Coe’s middle-aged performers runs deep and personal, but they do not come to blows until Duncan taunts Charlie over Brexit, relishing the vote’s effects on Aneeqa, the teenage Muslim daughter of Charlie’s girlfriend. Aneeqa aspires to study in Spain, but Brexit will constrain her internationalist ambitions. Duncan further antagonizes Charlie by noting that, due to an Irish grandfather, Duncan’s own teenager, Krystal, is eligible for an Irish passport and thus EU privileges; he smugly adds, “I wouldn’t have voted to take that away from my own daughter, now would I?” What it all boils down to, then, is whom Brexit affects, and how.
If sad-sack Charlie casts Remainers as clueless and pathetic, the cruel Leaver Duncan is “the most perfect, most seamless, most noxious combination of mean-spiritedness, arrogance and hypocrisy.” Still, there is a subtle continuity between Duncan and Coe’s decent Remainer characters, for Duncan votes Leave only after making sure his family at least has some critical exemptions. Like Benjamin and Doug—and Laing’s Kathy—Duncan observes Brexit’s negative impacts on others while being shielded from the full force of its effects. The difference from Benjamin and Doug is that Duncan watches with sadistic satisfaction, not horror.
It is in Charlie, then, that Coe’s commentaries on Brexit Britain and the post-Brexit novel converge. Benjamin witnesses one of Charlie’s public performances by chance, and is shocked to realize that the downtrodden clown is an old schoolmate. From their unexpected reunion, the two men begin a new friendship together. With Benjamin helping Charlie develop his writing talents, Coe allegorizes the need to elevate and give space for lost, forgotten voices.
Charlie’s story centers on his dreams for his girlfriend’s daughter. Thinking about Aneeqa, Charlie tries to imagine a future in which “people [are] no longer tethered by the narrow, imprisoning bonds of blood or religion or nationhood.” But, pointedly, Charlie qualifies, “I don’t want to diminish her, reduce her to a symbol, because she is something much more than that: a human being.” This line is winking, for in the novel Aneeqa is pure textual symbol, but it reminds novelists contending with the unrest of the present that material realities inform identities, even fictive ones.
Hanging in the balance of the Brexit moment, then, is the quality of life for real people. Coe’s hard-luck sad clown Charlie is one of the few middle-aged figures in his book who understands that anyone attempting to explain how we live now has a responsibility to imagine what others will inherit. Brexit’s imperative for the novel is less formal, Coe ultimately suggests, than political: a novel suited to the present must keep a focus on the future that our moment yields.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.
- Middle England is the final volume, preceded by The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004), of Coe’s trilogy of national disintegration, but it can also be read as a stand-alone novel. ↩