Dostoevsky described his alienated Underground Man as someone who "not only may but must exist in our society, taking under consideration the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed." Jonathan Coe has created contemporary Britain's equivalent in the title character of his most recent novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. Sim ("like a Sim card") is a middle-aged department store salesman on medical leave for depression after his divorce. He finds comfort in chain restaurants and avoids meaningful conversations at all cost. He has 74 friends on Facebook, and he painstakingly crafts status updates to which no one replies.
Like many lost in the world of impersonal hyperconnectivity, Maxwell Sim also longs for intimacy, and these competing interests represent the crux of the novel. However, the author of The Rotters' Club forces the reader through a number of unnecessary digressions while meandering toward the climax. The sprawling plot attempts to tie together an adultery assistance agency, banking deregulation, Sim's father's secret past with an egomaniacal, cape-wearing aesthete, love with a SatNav voice, a race across Britain for a start-up toothbrush company, and a hypertextual look at yachtsman Donald Crowhurst's descent into madness after a failed attempt to sail solo around the world. Add an academic essay and an ill-conceived meta-ending, and the result is, to say the least, befuddling. Perhaps a similar befuddlement to Sim's own.
Yet beneath Coe's forays into formalism and textual gymnastics, there lies a big-hearted novel with something interesting to say about the state of our interpersonal unions. The author understands loneliness and its malevolent cousin, madness; he writes an elegy to a less technocentric, less franchise-filled world. Coe's social satire is occasionally forced and often asinine, undercutting a moving meditation on what it means to be isolated amidst a sea of people, adrift in the dross of the mind.