Book review: Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

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A veritable legion, these literary Jonathans. On the other side of the Atlantic, Franzen, Lethem and Safran Foer form a daunting triumvirate wading into the big themes, the American family, 9/11, the Holocaust, the history of American Communism.

Expo 58

by Jonathan Coe

Viking, 288pp, £18.99

Over here we are still waiting for Mr Coe to get his mojo back. It might seem unreasonable to contrast Coe with his muscular American namesakes, but in the past he might have withstood the comparisons. He’s a writer whose polite provincialism once, maybe twice, harboured a visceral anger. What A Carve Up! was his 
millstone masterpiece, a scathing satire of Thatcherite cupidity with which all his subsequent efforts must compare unfavourably. The Rotters’ Club had traces of that 
same anger, tempered with a 
tender evocation of the brown and 
orange 1970s.

Those career highlights were characterised by a distinctive feel for period detail; hardly surprising perhaps with the relatively recent 1980s and with Coe’s impressive ability to remember his own grammar-school era 1970s. Setting Expo 58 in the 1950s, he has to resort to research. It would be a stretch to say he evokes that never-had-it-so-good era convincingly. Instead this is a palimpsest 1950s, traced over old British films, forgotten novels and, at times, snatches of Harry Enfield’s Mr Cholmondely-Warner spoofs.

The Expo of the title is the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958, an event presaging the space age, with the looming Atomium exciting the dreamers, intimidating the reactionaries. The Americans and Russians are bristling at each other in a spirit of paranoia from adjacent pavilions, Britain belatedly coming to terms with its new status as an imperial relic.

Our (considerably) flawed hero is Thomas Foley, or Folly, as the British Embassy in Brussels call him (Coe has plenty of such tepid jests and scatters them freely), sent from the Central Office of Information to oversee a theme-pub that is part of the British pavilion.

It’s not an unpromising set-up for a satirist, with plenty of opportunity for sallies against Britain’s historic attitude to Europe, its unwarranted pride in its own conservatism. There is surprisingly little of that though. The author’s attention-span is too readily distracted by a very spurious spy-caper storyline and a repressed romance between the (married) Thomas and an alluring Expo hostess called Anneke.

Thomas is one of Coe’s feebler protagonists, a suburban nonentity who calls his wife Sylvia “Syllabub” in letters home. There’s a vague dissatisfaction with a staid home life where Sylvia “forgets to butter his toast before putting sardines on it.” The reader shares Thomas’s ennui, delves desperately for some metaphor in that domestic detail.

What you see is what you get with Thomas though, one of those passive blank canvas characters to whom events occur, to their bafflement; even when his love life gets complicated, it doesn’t really grab the interest.

Coe, perhaps realising that Thomas lacks the spark of life, scrabbles to create some intrigue elsewhere. We have a comedy double-act in secret agents Radford and Wayne, who quiz Thomas on 
his opinion of Tolstoy, Prokofiev 
and Stravinsky to gauge his 
degree of Communist sympathies. Once again the reference point is sketch comedy: the camp, innuendo-prone haberdashers from The Fast Show.

Anneke is unforgivably bland, a quick outline of an alluring Eurobabe. Whatever happened to the empathetic Coe who could create such complex female characters as Sarah in The House Of Sleep? He has shackled himself to an ersatz 1950s-speak where people call each other “old man”, describing women as “awfully nice” as if in some sepia-tinted dystopia where the sacred text is Brief Encounter.

One of the few characters given a third dimension is James Gardner, the designer of the British pavilion, who has the advantage of not being fictional. His lines have a colour Coe’s creations lack, as he rails against “this bloody British antipathy to anything new, anything modern, anything which smacks of ideas rather than boring old facts”. To continue the unfair comparison of Coe to American authors, you wonder what fun a writer like Thomas Coraghessan Boyle would have with a brilliant man out of time like Gardner.

Expo 58 is a woefully incoherent work. The tone lurches insanely from broad farce through bitter-sweet comedy and melodrama to a doomed attempt at poignancy. Most of the time Coe is going for laughs, as when Thomas suggests his wife continues smoking through a pregnancy as “it’s a stressful time for a woman after all”. Effective comedy has to have some grounding in reality though, to emanate from convincing characters. Instead Coe pitches the gags at a level where the lecherous neighbour gazes down Sylvia’s ample cleavage when she pours tea and says “milk and two lumps please”.

There are Russian spies, American counter-spies, nuclear secrets chucked into the mix but Le Carré fans are unlikely to linger to discover the bathetic twist. When it comes to thriller plotting, Coe is quickly out of his depth and it’s a little off-putting watching him flounder in the shallows.

In the end, the only truly convincing 1950s element to Expo 58 is its quaint existence. You could probably get away with publishing a (not very) comic novel by a provincial academic back then, but these are harsher times.

• Jonathan Coe is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 15 August.