Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club by Lynn Geller

Jonathan Coe’s polyphonous novel The Rotter’s Club retells the story of pre-Thatcherite England, a time when one might hope that “the Irish question will be over in two years,” through the lives of four schoolboys.

Part of the Editor's Choice series.

BOMB 80 Summer 2002
BOMB 080

I spent the summer of 2001 obsessively reading about Vietnam. Soon after, we were at war. In the fall, I found myself wandering into the Watergate section at the public library. Then came Enron. My sister, a therapist, suggested countering the leaking collective unconscious (or leaking zeitgeist) with romance novels. Instead, I stumbled upon a wonderful middle ground—same era, different vantage point: The Rotter’s Club by Jonathan Coe, a fictional kaleidoscopic history of Birmingham, England. Following the lives of four schoolboys and their circle of friends, families, teachers, and romantic obsessions, the novel uses a chorus of different voices to illuminate the characters—including personal ads, a fast-forward millennial speech, and two weeks of the school newspaper written when the students’ advisor is out of town (“causing seventeen letters of complaint, including one from the chief”).

As the boys wobble toward maturity against a backdrop of labor unrest, racism, IRA terror, and appalling musical trends, so does the British nation, with the dark shadow of Thatcherism looming in its future. It’s a tribute to Coe’s graceful comedic touch that even when the characters go blindly down the wrong alley—such as young Ben Trotter (nickname, “Bent Rotter”), who attempts to write a prog rock symphony to his unrequited love; or the cuckolded father of another student who proclaims over dinner, “I’m not one for making predictions, but the Irish question will be over in two years”—we sympathize with their innocence, recognizing our own misguided detours, our own 20/20 hindsight, in the more palatable, splendid veil of fiction.

 

—Lynn Geller

 

Jonathon Coe’s The Rotter’s Club was published by Knopf in February 2002.

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Originally published in

BOMB 80, Summer 2002

Featuring interviews with Petah Coyne, Glen Seator, Ben van Berkel, Reynolds Price, Dubravka Ugresic, Michael Haneke, Donald Margulies, John Zorn

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