Maxwell Sim, the title character and dominant voice in the ninth novel from British writer Jonathan Coe, is not someone who could be considered a good traveling companion.
And yet, this is exactly the situation Coe offers in “The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim,” a smart if occasionally obvious satire of materialism and modern life centered on its 48-year-old narrator. Boorish, not very bright and generally weak in a way that makes him frustrating but often amusing company, Sim is a lonely divorcé hurtling toward a midlife crisis. We know the crisis is coming thanks to a news item on the novel’s first page, describing the surreal scene of Sim’s eventual discovery in the wilds of Scotland, nearly naked and passed out in a Prius with two cases of eco-friendly toothbrushes.
How Sim gets there constitutes much of the novel’s journey and many of its sharpest moments. Centered on Sim’s disconnectedness from his father, ex-wife and the Internet age as a whole, Coe’s writing fills the hapless Sim with musings about having 70 Facebook friends but no confidants, befriending his ex under an assumed name on an online message board and noting that mankind “has become very inventive in devising new ways for people to avoid talking to each other.” Even Sim’s name is a nod toward a long-running video game franchise where players manipulate human avatars through virtual lives.
Despite Sim’s ongoing awareness of such issues, he’s generally OK with all of them. Given the choice, he prefers the impersonal text message to the phone call, or the chain restaurant’s minimal human interaction and comforting repetition. However, given that his every clumsy effort to connect with a stranger leads nowhere (most notably with an airline seatmate who quietly dies rather than listen to Sim’s drab conversation), it’s hard to blame him.
As if knowing his narrator could wear out his welcome, Coe mixes things up with chapters written by characters from pivotal moments in Sim’s life and, most notably, a letter written by the uncle of a young woman Sim painfully fails to seduce after meeting on a transcontinental flight. After reading his retelling of Donald Crowhurst’s disastrous and deception-plagued attempt to win a solo sailing race around the world in 1969, Sim quickly becomes obsessed with Crowhurst, particularly after a boutique toothbrush company hires him to “race” against other sales reps to one of England’s four corners in a rented Prius.
His trip to Scotland becomes an odyssey of self-discovery. Drifting off course with visits to figures from his past that include a cringingly awkward dinner with his teenage daughter, Sim’s journey comes to a head while he drunkenly reads a portion of his father’s unpublished memoir, which poignantly if somewhat uncomfortably explains both his father’s emotional distance and aspects of Sim’s frustrated identity.
Coe is a funny writer, and it’s a testament to his skill with character that for all of his hero’s maddening faults and failures, Sim never wears out his welcome. In searching for biting laughs, parts of the book feel overwritten to the point of stretching plausibility. A section where Sim searches for companionship while mentally replying to a backlog of lewd spam subject lines quickly wears out its welcome, as does his escalating relationship with “Emma,” the voice of the Prius’ satellite navigation system that helps trigger Sim’s catharsis in the Scottish highlands. And an epilogue where Coe too-cleverly inserts himself into the story feels unnecessary at best, borderline hostile to the reader’s investment at worst.
However, like its main character, “The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim” has its rewarding qualities. It isn’t nearly as piercing as it hopes in skewering our way of life and the Internet’s place in it, but much like its targets, the book still stubbornly delivers moments of humor and humanity.