Jonathan Coe

There’s no lonelier place to be than alone in a crowd. That’s the central insight of Coe’s new novel, and it’s not only depressed, divorced, middle-aged fathers like his narrator Maxwell Sim who’ll find it resonant.

Coe chronicles the aimless exploits of Max, a toothbrush salesman on the run from skeletons in his family closet, with characteristic down-to-earth charm and bleak humour. That’s impressive because, as first-person narrators go, Max is a tough sell (a dull-ish, kindly bloke on long-term sick leave who tells us he’s useless at describing people).

Unfortunately, the author is forced to play fast and loose with the believability of the story to service the plot. Why do many rich and sexy people bend over backwards to seduce or help Max? That’s just one of many unanswerable questions. The twists are hugely enjoyable but, by the end, the character whose every humdrum recognisability gave him dignity and pathos has become as light as a puff of smoke, a victim of his inventor’s irrepressible sleight of hand.