Friday, January 12, 2007

"9th + 13th"

Jonathan Coe has been someone who intruiged me since Brother 2 first started trying to make me read his battered copy of "What A Carve Up" around 1998 (however, I have issue with reading tatty books and never read "WACU" until 2005, preferring to wait until I had my own pristine copy). So when a copy of Coe's "The House Of Sleep" came my way for review purposes around 1998, I devoured it with great enthusiasm... and that was when I became one of those people who buys a Coe book as soon as it comes out. Of course, buying a book as soon as it comes out is not the same as reading it immediately. Which is why, despite having bought this mini Penguin edition of four very short stories in 2005, "9th + 13th", it took me until today to actually read it. (Rest assured I have since made time to read "What A Carve Up", "The Rotters Club", "Closed Circle" and think about reading "Like A Fiery Elephant").

However, now there is something of a Coe resurrgence in my world. Shortly before Christmas, Coe was a guest lecturer at my university so I went along with relish. Having been to a Coe book reading in 2001 for "The Rotters Club" I had a dubious impression of the fellow, since I felt he came across as rather a miserable git then. But he made up for that at the lecture, and delivered a really interesting paper about how he uses the theme of the contemporary within his novels, and how he feels some of his novels (notably "Closed Circle") have been misread by critics and subsequently readers. This term I am studying Coe as part of the "British Fiction Since 1979" module, and as such am now finding time to re-read most of my Coe back catalogue.

Which was what led me to "9th + 13th". Coe doesn't pretend to be a short story wrier, and this collection of three short stories and one newspaper article are his entire output in his entire career (spanning around 20 years). However, what he lacks in quantity he makes up for in quality. There is a theme of middle-aged love and lust running throughout all three novels (and even, to some extent, the article about his passion for an obscure Billy Wilder film). Normally I'm not keen on short stories as I feel the time invested in trying to get to know a new set of characters and scenarios doesn't justify the meagre length of the tale, but Coe's characters and stories were manageable and accessible.

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