Gothic horror tale, detective mystery, autobiography, political history: Jonathan Coe’s appealingly ambitious new novel involves a promiscuous intermingling of literary genres, as a potted social history of Thatcherism is tucked inside some meta-textual high jinks. An anatomy of the appalling Winshaw family, Thatcherite predators of one ilk or another, provides the lens for a scabrous critique of Tory Britain; but at the source of the family’s history lies a mysterious murder, so that the text simultaneously yields us a camped-up whodunnit. Flamboyant crimes and scandalous secrets marked the Thatcher epoch, just as they do the life of the novel’s voyeuristic, emotionally autistic narrator, Michael Owen, whose finger hovers constantly by the freeze-frame button as he drools over videos. The Thatcherite Eighties were all about emotionally retarded men excitedly glued to screens, manipulating signs to conjure fortunes into being as arbitrarily as the literary artist (Owen is a minor novelist) dreams up character and event.
Just as the stock-market is a form of collective fiction, so there was something about the Thatcher era which was fabular, melodramatic, larger-than-life, and which lends itself easily to the Gothic mode. At one level, the grisly Winshaws inhabit the eternal present of an age in which capital seems finally to have abolished history. There is Hilary the hard-bitten tabloid columnist. Roddy the heartless art-dealing seducer, Henry the free-market ideologue, Dorothy the profit-mad agriculturalist. As a dynasty, however, these men and women belong to another literary and temporal mode entirely – to the spoof Gothic fiction of Winshaw Towers, with its cartoon-like turrets and corridors, its drunken butler and freight of family horrors. It is as though Mervyn Peake has intersected with Margaret Drabble, as an age of instantly consumable time is incongruously overlaid with a lineage of furtive doings in the shrubbery and insane aunts raving in solitary bedrooms.
A carve-up of contemporary Britain, What a Carve Up! is also a carve-up of a book, a vertiginous, exquisitely calculated collage of texts-within-texts, of interviews, inventories and newspaper cuttings folded into a genealogy of the Winshaws which – since the narrator is struggling to write that genealogy – is also a record of his spiritual vicissitudes. Novelists live by fiction, but Michael Owen lives in it too: by a curious coincidence, What a Carve Up! is also the title of a spicy comic film he saw as a child, in which Kenneth Connor drools over a disrobing Shirley Eaton but refuses to join her in bed, as the narrator will similarly refuse a woman friend of his own. (Just for good measure, a radical theorist in the book discourses of Godard and the sway of the signifier, as if we needed clues to Coe’s fiendish cleverness.) The young Owen was whisked out of the cinema before he could witness anything too shocking; and this coitus interruptus has become something of a way of life with him, extending to his broken-backed literary and sexual career. Fiction substitutes for reality, as he hunches over his video recorder; but life imitates art far more than the other way round, as the Connor-and-Eaton film prefigures the plot of the Winshaw saga, itself a mélange of sober factology and extravagant fantasy.
In Gothic, history weighs like a nightmare on the present; in consumerist capitalism, the present eradicates the past. Detective stories, by contrast, put time into reverse: they start with the culmination of a history – a corpse – and then reconstruct what led up to it. So too does autobiography, which strives to reclaim the past from the vantage-point of the present. The autobiographer is at once subject and object of his or her narrative, a fissured soul striving impossibly for self-coincidence, for that magical moment when the writing subject and the subject written of will merge into an imaginary whole. The prototype of this process is Oedipus, the detective in pursuit of the criminal who is himself. Michael Owen starts out as the uninvolved observer of the Winshaws only to uncover his complicity in his own narrative: Thomas Winshaw’s swindling schemes helped ruin his father, who was then killed off by the junk food from Dorothy Winshaw’s torture chamber of a farm; and Henry Winshaw helped the death of his sick girlfriend by playing a central part in running down the National Health Service. Indeed, Owen’s relation to the family will finally turn out to be even more intimate than that. We are back in the sphere of High Victorian realism, where personal and political destinies are secretly intermeshed, and where the role of the author is to bring these submerged affinities to light. But this has now thickened into the paranoid world of the Post-Modernist text, where everything is at once arbitrary and obsessively interconnected, and where – for all the world as in a novel – the contingencies of real life turn out to be densely plotted. The locus classicus of this in fiction is the scene where the characters are gathered together in the drawing room of the country house to hear a will revealed or the source of the crime disclosed; and What a Carve Up! ends with an adroitly heavy-handed parody of that moment, as the Winshaws – now all potential murder victims – try to figure out which particular movie they are in. The answer, surprisingly enough, is What a Carve Up!
Post-Modernism’s compulsive connecting is in part a Utopian impulse, a yearning for a non-fragmentary world in which things might once more rhyme. But it is quite as much dystopian: the reflection of a society in which the public has so deeply penetrated the private that there seems no room left for chance or free play, a world of public secrets and private transparencies, where everything is at once aleatory and sinisterly intended. The hunger to relate is both a nostalgia for the symmetries of classical realism, and a reflex of the degraded condition into which it has degenerated. The detective story is the meta-narrative par excellence, in which random odds and ends are woven into a shapely closure, and opaque events are lifted into the light of an omniscient knowledge; this is surely one reason why the detective is so idealised a figure in the popular culture of advanced capitalism. What a Carve Up! achieves exactly that closure, even if one of its galaxy of detectives is a raddled old gay, incapable of controlling his libidinal urges; but it does so with proper Post-Modernist irony, aware that meta-narrative can thrive only in fiction, just as Henry Fielding knew that justice was dispensed more by novelists than by magistrates. Yet Coe’s novel is so flagrantly Post-Modern, so shrewdly conscious of its own busily parodic techniques, that it has the curious effect of parodying Post-Modernism too, raising it to the second power and so, to a certain degree, allowing it to cancel itself out. What it then cancels into is realism: the political hope that real-life criminals may also be brought to book, that a Tory Britain in which the sick are left in the corridors of bed-starved hospitals may get its comeuppance.
It is an index of the difficulty of totalising that system that this novel falls back – ironically, to be sure – on the device of envisaging its rulers as a family. For the governing élite of Britain is not a family, and so cannot be summoned to the drawing room for their just deserts; nor are they hideously evil individuals, as the Winshaws most certainly are. In this sense, What a Carve Up! is fantastic wish-fulfilment, able to establish political justice only by a crafty shuffling of genres in which fairy tale is projected onto realpolitik. But the novel, of course, knows this too, and succeeds despite being one of the few pieces of genuinely political Post-Modern fiction around. Post-Modernist fiction is said by its apologists to be political because it decentres a too-replete subjectivity, dislodges self-evident truths, wreaks havoc with the linear time of the victors, refuses the ideological tyranny of closure and absolute truth. There is a good deal of such tricksiness on display here; but the novel is chiefly political in a pleasantly old-fashioned sense, preoccupied with animal torturers, predatory stockbrokers and the Gulf War; it is deeply, unwaveringly furious.
What a Carve Up!, then, is among other things a social realist work, even if one of its most accomplished achievements is to press social realism just a hair’s breadth this side of utter banality. Its narrator is much given to patches of mind-numbingly pedestrian detail. But whereas, in the average Post-Modern work, that would be enough to put the drearily real sufficiently in its place, this novel understands that it is politics – torture, suffering, deprivation – which reminds us that our signifier-shaped existence is more corporeal than textual. The novel is consumably realist in content but Post-Modern in form, as though Trollope had gone to school with Calvino; and this strange cross-fertilisation succeeds in putting both camps into question, reminding us discreetly that social realism is one style among many while recalling the literary gamesters to the realities of exploitation. It has the structural intricacy of the traditional ‘dynasty’ novel, of a Galsworthy or Thomas Mann, but treats all that in the sportive, coldly demystified style of the contemporary.
One minor incident in the book exemplifies the thin line it treads between signifier and signified. Owen has been writing a review of a fashionable leftist novelist whom he scorns, and putting in a plea for novels which ‘show an understanding of the ideological hijack that has taken place so recently in this country’. It is not difficult to give a name to the novel he is recommending. The novelist under review, he concludes with a flourish, ‘lacks the necessary brio’ – but the final word is mangled by the printers, its middle two letters hilariously reversed. In one sense, this sliding of the signifier could be read as bathetically puncturing his naive political zeal, which is in any case envious and self-regarding. Here as elsewhere in the book, the Post-Modern doctrine that power and desire underlie clinical disinterestedness is in full working order. A random twist of the signifier intervenes to reduce Owen’s political self-righteousness to farcical nonsense. But it is also true that you can’t, as a writer, display brio without a biro – that if reality is the product of the signifier, then the signifier in turn requires some material support. Owen may live in a movie; but at one point in the book we are taken into the film studios to witness the material apparatus which actually created it, an apparatus which includes the financial investments of the ubiquitous Winshaws. What a Carve Up! shuttles us between signifier and referent, fiction and reality, Sid James and Saddam Hussein, reminding us that though life is indeed a product of art, it is for that very reason, in a world where an art dealer uses the promise of fame to seduce a young painter, indubitably real.