Understanding Jonathan Coe

Understanding Jonathan Coe

Understanding Jonathan Coe

Understanding Jonathan Coe


In Understanding Jonathan Coe, the first full-length study of the British novelist, Merritt Moseley surveys a writer whose experimental technique has become increasingly well received and critically admired. Coe is the recipient of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Prix Medicis, the Priz du Meilleur Livre Entranger, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prizes for Fiction, and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. His oeuvre includes eleven novels and three biographies--two of famous Hollywood actors Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart and one of English modernist novelist B. S. Johnson.
Following an introductory overview of Coe's life and career, Moseley examines Coe's complex engagement with popular culture, his experimental technique, his political satire, and his broad-canvased depictions of British society. Though his first three books, An Accidental Woman, A Touch of Love, and The Dwarves of Death, received little notice upon publication, Moseley shows their strengths as literary works and as precursors. In 1994 Coe gained visibility with What a Carve Up!, which has remained his most admired and discussed novel. He has since published a postmodern take on sleep disorders and university students, The House of Sleep; a two-volume roman-fleuve consisting of The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle; a touching account of a lonely woman's life, The Rain before It Falls; a satiric vision of a misguided life, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim; and a domestic comedy thriller set at the 1958 world's fair in Brussels, Expo '58. Moseley explicates these works and discusses the recurring features of Coe's fiction: political consciousness, a deep artistic concern with the form of fiction, and comedy.


The book that follows is designed to introduce new readers to the work of Jonathan Coe and to help (and encourage) those who have already become his readers. It is designed as a guide accessible to any interested and intelligent reader, without requiring extensive knowledge of contemporary literary theory, the British literary scene, or other specialized domains.

The title, Understanding Jonathan Coe, is not meant to insist that Coe’s writing is abstruse or forbidding or that readers are helpless to understand it without outside assistance. Instead it implies that a deeper study, assisted by discussion of some important features, can produce more understanding, and—as an additional desirable outcome—enhanced appreciation and enjoyment of the novels. Jonathan Coe is a writer who wishes his readers to read his books with pleasure, rather than as an ordeal or obligation. May this book help them to increase that pleasure.

As always, I am indebted to the helpful and cheerful librarians of my academic library at the University of North Carolina at Asheville; to my colleagues for their encouragement, their efforts sustaining the necessary work of our department, and their examples of serious and penetrating reading of texts; and to Jonathan Coe, for friendly approachability. I appreciate them all.

Finally, I thank my family—my daughters, their partners, and my grandchildren—for their affection and the joy they bring to my life and most of all, for all that I owe her, my wife, Madeline.

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