Coe, Jonathan 1961-

views updated

Coe, Jonathan 1961-


Born August 19, 1961, in Birmingham, England; son of Roger Frank (a physicist) and Janet Mary (a teacher) Coe; married Janine Maria McKeown (a psychologist), January 28, 1989; children: Matilda, Madeline. Education: Trinity College, Cambridge, B.A., 1983; University of Warwick, M.A., 1984, Ph.D., 1986.


Home—London, England. Agent—Peake Associates, 14 Grafton Crescent, London NW1 8SL, England.


Writer. University of Warwick, Coventry, England, tutor in English poetry, 1984-85; legal proofreader, 1987-88, and freelance writer and journalist, 1988, all in London, England.


John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Mail on Sunday, 1995; Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger 1996, for What a Carve Up!; Writer's Guild Best Fiction Award 1997; Prix Médicis Etranger, 1998, for The House of Sleep; Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, 2001, for The Rotters' Club; Premio Arzobispo San Clemente, 2003; Samuel Johnson Prize, 2005, for Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson; International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2006, for The Closed Circle.



The Accidental Woman, Duckworth (London, England), 1987.

A Touch of Love, Duckworth (London, England), 1989.

The Dwarves of Death, Fourth Estate (London, England), 1990.

What a Carve Up!, Viking (London, England), 1994, published as The Winshaw Legacy: or, What a Carve Up!, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.

The House of Sleep, Viking (London, England), 1997, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.

The Rotters' Club, Viking (London, England), 2001.

The Closed Circle, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.


Humphrey Bogart: Take It and Like It (biography), Bloomsbury (London, England), 1991.

James Stewart, Leading Man (biography), Bloomsbury (London, England), 1994, published as Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life, Arcade (New York, NY), 1994.

(Author of introduction) Shirley Eaton, Golden Girl, B.T. Batsford, Ltd. (London, England), 1999.

Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, Continuum (New York, NY), 2005.

9th & 13th, Penguin (New York, NY), 2005.


Also contributor of reviews and articles to periodicals, including the Guardian, London Review of Books, New Statesman, Sight and Sound, Cahiers du Cinema, and others.


The Dwarves of Death was adapted as the film Five Seconds to Spare, 1999; The Rotters' Club was adapted for a miniseries, 2005, BBC-TV; The Winshaw Legacy: Or, What a Carve Up! has been optioned for a television film, ITV, England.


Jonathan Coe's first three novels established him as an innovative writer on the British literary scene. The Accidental Woman, A Touch of Love, and The Dwarves of Death contain a writing style described as both humorous and brooding. In The Accidental Woman, the main character, Maria, exercises little control over her life, which is instead governed by a succession of random occurrences. Through intrusive narration, a literary convention made popular by the eighteenth-century English author Henry Fielding, Coe comments within the narrative on the plot and the process of novel writing. The author's use of the convention was judged "camp" and "pretentious" by Nigella Lawson in the Times Literary Supplement. Coe defended his choice of style to Peter Parker in Books, stating that the intrusive narrator can "be used to make a story much more flexible" and enables an author to "draw in a much wider range of attitudes." Despite finding Coe's narrative technique ultimately unsuccessful, Lawson concluded her review noting that The Accidental Woman shows "signs of genuine literary talent … in Coe's comic sense, which hovers between satire and surrealism; and in his ear for dialogue."

A Touch of Love reveals the inner despair of Englishman Robin Grant, a suicidal character deeply affected by sobering world political affairs as well as the confusion that exists in his own life. Told with sardonicism, Robin's story becomes increasingly dark when he is mistakenly accused of child molestation and eventually abandoned by his lawyer, who also faces an abundance of personal difficulty. The characters in the novel consistently prove themselves inept at coping with life's problems; "Coe doesn't like [the characters], but he makes them figures of fun rather than objects of hate," remarked Mark Illis in the Times Literary Supplement. The literary technique of A Touch of Love elicited praise from Illis, who pointed out that "part of the pleasure of the novel is its generous display of authorial skills. Jonathan Coe uses stories within the story, shifting viewpoints and an imaginary interviewer to uncover all the layers of Robin's predicament."

The Dwarves of Death, Coe's third novel, presents a character who once again is disheartened by the events of the world around him. William is a twenty-three-year-old London musician who, after witnessing a grim murder, suffers a series of disenchantments, including a failed relationship; these experiences contribute to his decision to leave London at the end of the novel. Coe's implementation of a literary form that includes such varied elements as romance, comedy, suspense, and detailed description of the rock-and-roll music scene prompted D.J. Taylor in the Spectator to call the book "a conflation, a stylistic grab-bag of loose-ends and creaking linkages." The Dwarves of Death, however, was esteemed as a unique attraction for readers of the same generation as the main character. Declaring the work "immensely enjoyable," Taylor observed in the novel "an odd, fugitive lyricism … an abiding sense of innocence downcast."

Coe has continued to write award-winning and critically acclaimed novels as well as nonfiction books. With The Winshaw Legacy: or, What a Carve Up! (published in England originally as What a Carve Up!), he creates "a British detective story, gothic melodrama, political novel, screwball story, and a satire of all of the above," as Publishers Weekly contributor Steven Zeitchik noted. Coe takes the title from a 1961 horror spoof film, and engages in many of the same outsized narrative techniques in his novel. For Daniel Hahn, writing on the British Council Arts Web site, The Winshaw Legacy is "an extraordinary piece of social satire, which uses the story of a powerful, wealthy and ruthless family, the Winshaws, to expose the excesses and evils of all aspects of Thatcherite Britain." Similarly, Richard Eder, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found the novel "a savagely surreal portrait of Thatcherite Britain, its economy and politics in the hands of ruthless entrepreneurs."

Coe's 1997 novel, The House of Sleep, takes a more realistic turn, describing the adventures of a group of former university students who reunite at the mysterious cliff-top house where they used to live. The house has since been turned into a clinic and the four former friends—Terry, cursed with insomnia and fascinated with film, narcoleptic Sarah, Robert who is in love with Sarah, and the sleep doctor Gregory—all have their different reasons for returning to their former home. Writing on the British Council Arts Web site in 2001, Hahn called The House of Sleep Coe's "most ambitious and accomplished [novel] to date" Hahn also found the novel "intricate and brilliant."

Coe follows a group of Birmingham friends from their teens into midlife in a further pair of novels. In The Rotters' Club, the reader is introduced to Douglas, a would be journalist, Harding, Philip, and Benjamin, who has dreams of becoming a musician. These four are attending a private school in Birmingham during the Thatcherite 1970s. The story focuses on Benjamin Trotter, whose last name helps to give the friends a club name, and also on his sister Lois, whose life is shattered by an IRA bombing. Noah Robischon, writing in Entertainment Weekly, commented that "Coe uses adolescence to symbolize the deeper struggles." Though Coe writes critically of the Thatcher years in England, his is not a political tract. As Stephen Amidon noted in the Atlantic Monthly, "the strength of The Rotters' Club lies in its comic humanity, not its anger." Jeff Zeleski, writing in Publishers Weekly, found the work "witty, sprawling and ambitious," while a Kirkus Reviews critic felt it was a "rich (too rich, perhaps) portrait of a time and a place that have received less than their fair share of literary attention." Reviewing The Rotters' Club in Publishers Weekly, Steven Zeitchik wrote: "What Coe has managed is the tricky feat of depicting the claustrophobia and vulnerability of youth without sacrificing larger political and cultural truths. He gets both the kids and the adults right." Eder, writing in the New York Times Book Review, also had praise for the novel, calling it "richly constructed and brilliantly ornamented."

Coe returns to Benjamin and his friends in The Closed Circle, moving the story forward a quarter of a century. Benjamin, an accountant, has spent years trying to pen a novel about his youth in 1970s England. His brother, meanwhile, has joined the new Labour government, working for Tony Blair. Douglas, who has become a journalist, hopes that Benjamin's friendship will secure him a special story with this rising star in the Blair government. Benjamin, for his part, is stuck in a child- less marriage and hopelessly attracted to a young graduate student. Jenny Turner, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that "much of the novel has a freeform, improvised quality." Turner went on to observe: "The effect is odd but also charming: sometimes bathetic, sometimes sublime." Writing in Library Journal, Barbara Love observed: "fans of the earlier novel will be rewarded by the welcome return of an engaging cast of characters and the resolution of outstanding mysteries." Similar praise came from a Kirkus Reviews critic who concluded: "A pleasing modern-day addition to the venerable lineage of the English social novel, easily the equal of [Anthony] Trollope or [John] Galsworthy." Likewise, a Publishers Weekly contributor hailed the novel as "a compelling, dramatic and often funny depiction of the way we live now—both savage and heartfelt at the same time." Elizabeth Judd added further praise in an Atlantic Monthly review, terming the novel "messy and brimming," and commending the "nineteenth century novelist's discursiveness and reach" which Coe employs.

Coe turned from fiction to biography in his award-winning study Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, which traces the life of the experimental British writer of the 1970s who ultimately took his own life at age forty. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found this a "quirky biography." Robert Kelly, writing in Library Journal, had higher praise for the work, noting: "At long last, Johnson, an author of literary merit, receives well-deserved recognition." Writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction Theodore Louis McDermott also had a positive assessment of the biography, commenting that Coe "assumes, with great success, the ambitions and risks of his subject." Robert Winder, reviewing the same work in the New Statesman, declared Like a Fiery Elephant "a model exercise in biography."

Coe once told CA: "The more you write, the more you become aware of patterns, repetitions, and recurring obsessions in your own work. To break free of these has become my main challenge. The other great task is to fight against the solipsism and introspection to which all writers are naturally inclined; to remember that there is a world out there, a teeming arena of public life, and that it is the novel's duty to be socially engaged. What you can see through your study window is not just your own face, dimly reflected, but beyond that, a vast panorama of human complication. Both these things must be attended to."



Atlantic Monthly, March, 2002, Stephen Amidon, review of The Rotters' Club, p. 119; June, 2005, Elizabeth Judd, review of The Closed Circle, p. 118.

Books (London, England), November, 1987, Nigella Lawson, review of The Accidental Woman.

Bookseller, September 30, 2005, "Carving Up Coe," p. 36.

Entertainment Weekly, March 1, 2002, Noah Robischon, review of The Rotters' Club, p. 75.

Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2001, review of The Rotters' Club, p. 1700; March 1, 2005, review of The Closed Circle, pp. 244-245.

Library Journal, February 1, 2002, Lawrence Rundgren, review of The Rotters' Club, p. 130; March 1, 2005, Barbara Love, review of The Closed Circle, p. 76; June 1, 2005, Robert Kelly, review of Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, pp.127-128.

New Statesman, June 21, 2004, Robert Winder, review of Like a Fiery Elephant, pp. 48-49; October 24, 2004, Mark Lawson, review of The Closed Circle, p. 55; June 27, 2005, Rosie Millard, "Notebook," p. 41.

New Yorker, June 27, 2005, review of The Closed Circle, p. 99.

New York Times Book Review, March 24, 2002, Richard Eder, review of The Rotters' Club; June 19, 2005, Jenny Turner, review of The Closed Circle; July 9, 2006, Ishan Taylor, review of The Closed Circle.

People, July 11, 2005, Kyle Smith, review of The Closed Circle, p. 49.

Publishers Weekly, January 28, 2002, Jeff Zeleski, review of The Rotters' Club, p. 268; April 25, 2005, review of Like a Fiery Elephant, p. 51; March 28, 2005, review of The Closed Circle, pp. 53-54; September 5, 2005, Steven Zeitchik, "The Best Writer You've Never Heard Of," p. 21.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 2005, Theodore Louis McDermott, review of Like a Fiery Elephant, pp. 150-151; fall, 2006, Stephen Bernstein, review of The Closed Circle, p. 151.

School Library Journal, May, 2002, Trevelyn E. Jones, review of The Rotters' Club, p. 179.

Spectator, September 15, 1990, D.J. Taylor, review of The Dwarves of Death.

Times Literary Supplement, May 15, 1987, Nigella Lawson, review of The Accidental Woman; June 2, 1989, Mark Illis, review of A Touch of Love.


British Council Arts Web site, (March 3, 2007), Daniel Hahn, "Contemporary Authors: Jonathan Coe."

Internet Movie Database, (March 3, 2007), "Jonathan Coe."