Multiple storylines in Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, Number 11 (Viking, £16.99), return frequently to Rachel, a Leeds girl who goes on to study at Oxford and become a tutor for the super rich. Like his classic satire What a Carve Up, the author’s eleventh novel is a contemporary state-of-the-nation novel, this time with inequality, social media and reality TV among its targets.
Was it a challenge to create an authentic voice for a nine-year-old girl?
Well, I hope her voice is authentic. I have two daughters and it’s not so long since they were nine, so I had that to draw on. But being able to ventriloquise voices other than your own is one of the most basic novelistic skills. God help me if I can only write in the voice of a middle-aged white male.
Number 11 revisits some of the characters and themes of What A Carve Up but you have been critical of its recognition as your most celebrated novel. Why did you decide to unearth it again?
People kept suggesting that I wrote a sequel but it seemed a boring idea, revisiting old ground. But then it occurred to me that nearly every character in What A Carve Up is dead by the end of the book so it couldn’t be a straightforward sequel anyway. That actually began to intrigue me, and I started thinking of ways of writing an entirely new novel that was tied to the other one in some way. The other thing that appealed was revisiting the gothic horror-comedy mode I’d used in What A Carve Up but never tried again. I had the idea of structuring the new novel in five parts, like a British portmanteau horror movie from the 1970s (Tales That Witness Madness was one such), and then the whole thing took off. Books usually spring to life for me once I’ve settled on a form or a structure.
How have your own politics evolved since you wrote What A Carve Up?
My politics haven’t really changed since the early 1980s. I’m not a Labour Party member but I nearly always vote for them – on the Labour party spectrum I’m probably on the right of Jeremy Corbyn but to the left of Tony Blair. I think my ideal Labour prime minister would have been John Smith. I’m haunted by the idea of how things would have panned out if he hadn’t died and had become PM in 1997.
Would Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to Labour leadership have changed the perspective of the novel if it had happened prior to finishing it?
Not really. The book isn’t tied to party politics, although there are a few digs at George Osborne. It’s really an attempt to take the temperature of Britain in 2015 across the board – taking in culture, academia, reality TV and so on – as well as politics, of course, where in domestic terms the most worrying thing for me is the massive increase in inequality, which is so unhealthy for social cohesion.
You comment on reality TV keeping people stuck on their sofas and how Downton Abbey sentimentalises the rich-poor divide. To what extent do you think entertainment is a means of capitalist manipulation and repression today?
Well, that hasn’t really changed since Roman times – give the people bread and circuses to keep them docile. I do find Downton a fascinating phenomenon, and a rare instance of an unambiguously, unapologetically conservative TV drama. But you have to remember that mainstream TV can be oppositional too, although you have to go back a very long way – maybe even as far back as Boys From The Blackstuff – to find a really powerful example.
Is London undergoing social cleansing and what does it mean for the regions?
The global elite are certainly making it hard for the rest of us to live in central London. You regularly hear stories of people having to travel two or three hours into London to work as teachers, cleaners and so on. I suppose eventually that might mean a drift away from the capital and into the provincial cities, which might then become revitalised. If London becomes uninhabitable for ordinary people then that might, after all, prove its downfall.
We see the very rich flirting with the protagonist’s working class background – Sir Gilbert wants to appropriate it for his son so he has a better chance of getting into Oxford, and Freddie gets turned on by Rachel’s “political naivety” delivered in a regional accent. Do the elite romanticise hardship?
That aspect of the plot arose from a conversation I had with someone who had worked as a private tutor and had been asked to spend a day with an Etonian to try to teach him to sound a bit less entitled and privileged in his university interviews. It struck me as a weird, ironic fable about how our class attitudes are configured these days. I don’t think the upper classes romanticise hardship – what they often want to appropriate (and this has been going on for decades) is some of the glamour of working-class cool (as they see it) without any of the hardship that goes with it. What’s alarming is that it’s so hard to get started in any of the creative industries now without a private family income to fall back on. When I came to London in 1986 I moved into a shared council flat and was paying £8 a week for my room. Basically I lived quite happily on £30 a week and that continued for a couple of years while I was able to sit at home and work on my novels. Who could do that nowadays, without relying on their parents for support?