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Part 1: Jonathan Coe, ‘a bringer of laughter’

‘There’s a Lot to Be Said for Making People Laugh’: The Grotesque as Political Subversion in Jonathan Coe’s Fiction

« Faire rire est une activité digne des plus hauts éloges » : le grotesque comme subversion politique dans la fiction de Jonathan Coe
José Ramón Prado-Pérez


L’utilisation du comique que propose Jonathan Coe dans ses romans devient une déclaration politique qui puise sa force dans la puissance déstabilisatrice que l’humour peut exercer sur la représentation de la réalité et sur les récits dominants. Je soutiens que son approche comique est fondée sur des formes transgressives d’humour allant de la satire à l’absurde, et sur des éléments de défamiliarisation et de distanciation liés à la réflexivité narrative. Coe joue les contradictions de l'humour contre elles-mêmes, offrant un divertissement et simultanément renforçant le grotesque afin de diminuer tout effet anesthésiant potentiel. Cet article analyse une sélection de moments grotesques dans les romans de Coe qui tente de présenter une réalité déformée, laquelle se constitue en norme. La condition politique émergerait dans la reconnaissance que le comique grotesque devient la règle plutôt que l'exception, créant un espace entre-deux qui alimente la critique sociale.

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1By the end of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, the eponymous protagonist experiences his artistic epiphany in the most unexpected and surprising manner. To spend their leisure time convicts are treated to a film session of Disney cartoons. There, Sullivan has the opportunity, from his vantage point as film director turned tramp, turned convict, of observing the spontaneous and immediate, we might even say unsophisticated, response of common people in the form of laughter, which progressively turns into an uncontrolled hysterical outburst. Sullivan discovers thus the potential strengths of comedy to instantiate positive accounts of community through sharing.

2Sturges employs the comic technique of distortion, leading to the grotesque: the camera zooms in gradually into close narrow shots of the convicts’ faces in their increasing riotous enjoyment of the least intellectual type of comedy, farce. The shots become more and more subjective, to disclose in detail, and at unnatural angles, the ugliness and deformity of these persons. The ambivalence and strength of the image marks it as definitively grotesque, reminding viewers of the quality of human nature at its utmost baseness. These prisoners, who have been reduced to the status of animals by the prison system, a metaphor of society itself, react crudely and spontaneously. Simultaneously, laughter acts as the great leveller, cutting across social, cultural or contextual divisions, revealing them artificial and constructed in contrast with the human feature that makes us all equal through laughter. However, visually, the spectator is confronted with chaos, madness, and images of degradation, which combine disgust, repulsion, and, perhaps, fear and pity. If anything, what the scene provokes in the standard spectator is confusion at being faced with such a disruption of the fictional world, which, in turn, destabilises his/her perceptions. Jonathan Coe’s approach to comedy resembles that of Sturges regarding the adoption of grotesque imagery, the blurring of fiction and reality in relation to the veracity of their tales, and the adoption of meta-narrative devices to prevent the mimetic identification associated with narrative suspension of disbelief.

3Harpham’s description of the response elicited by grotesque works of art explains the film sequence described above, and constitutes also an organic part of Coe’s narrative technique:

Such naive laughter, which might arise on the comic or caricatural fringe of the grotesque as a superiority-response to the ugly, deformed or distorted, becomes complex, withdrawn in confusion as the reader senses, according to his degree of sophistication, either that the artist is mocking him or that the familiar world is being mocked and subverted by the abysmal, the nocturnal, the irrational, the satanic. (Harpham 463)

4The film scene is further problematised by pairing the convicts’ ‘naive’ laughter alongside the more ‘sophisticated’ and self-conscious response of film director Sullivan. The latter senses the disruption of the familiar world, but, nevertheless, feels compelled to join in the contagious, unavoidable laughter which rests at the heart of the grotesque and its ambivalent structure of revulsion and appeal:

[…] providing a stereotype, also furnishes the radical incongruity which intensifies our disgust and coerces us to laugh-a short snort with no smile-in spite of our disgust. For an object to be grotesque, it must arouse three responses. Laughter and astonishment are two; either disgust or horror is the third. (Harpham 463)

5There are always, in Jonathan Coe’s works, certain events and situations which apparently bear no relation to the narrative unravelling. These moments are experienced as a non sequitur by the readers, who are left in a state of confusion and mirth as to their precise significance. I will argue that such intrusions of the grotesque into the narrative, like Sturges’s depicted above, play a crucial part in the writer’s project to systematically question literary, social and cultural categories and expectations. Harpham distinguishes between artistic works which fully endorse a grotesque aesthetics, and those which adopt the grotesque strategically. Jonathan Coe would belong in the latter category of

[…] those who use it as an element in a larger, non-grotesque structure. In such a larger context, where the norm is truly a norm and not just bait for the grotesque, the grotesque might have the effect of raising the spectre of insanity or of introducing chaos, even if momentarily, into a world or a work which does not wholly embrace it. (Harpham 465)

6Precisely, chaos and insanity abound as recurrent tropes in Coe’s texts, both at the diegetic and stylistic levels. They are often displayed in hyperbolic, exaggerated form, so as to challenge the readers’ assumptions, such as the writer seems to have identified them as inscribed in society and its specific cultural climate. The grotesque, thus understood, can be reconceptualised as a liminal space of hybridity and ambivalence, the in-between area where the negotiation of meanings is continually at work. Accordingly, Jonathan Coe’s fictions celebrate hybridity by resorting to the grotesque in a sustained search for alternative spaces of possibility through comedy and self-conscious narratives, which undermine any attempt at authority in the self-same process of their own constitution.

7While discussions about the grotesque focus on features related to its distorted representation of reality, its marked ambivalence also suggests a complementary reading associated with its capacity for subversion through hybridity. Barasch argues that: ‘at crucial moments in these works, conventional logic of the fiction is shattered by grotesque imagery or events that destroy the accustomed and recreate fictional realities as irrational experience’ (Barasch 5). Such a statement presupposes a normative world or reality founded on rationality and cultural expectation which we are to identify with classical realism and mimesis: ‘[…] the grotesque structure also implies a failure of conventional systems to provide rational solutions for human interaction’ (Barasch 6). The acknowledgement of a certain ‘failure’ to understand and explain the world with patterns that do not provide answers anymore articulates the grotesque as a mode of representation which can cater for social moments of transition and flux, not yet solidified into an ideology. From such a perspective, the grotesque would not exactly constitute a deviation or deformation of existing reality, but, instead, an attempt at recovering a suppressed or displaced reality which has been marginalised in the process of representation. Bakhtin’s term, ‘grotesque realism’ (Bakhtin 1984), which he applies to medieval carnivalesque representations, points in the same direction. In this sense, the grotesque should be paired against ‘normality’, the latter conformed as a sedimentation of dominant cultural views and practices (Russo 1995). Rejecting such a collusion of ‘reality’ with ‘normality’, which prefigures a static and unproblematic understanding of either, the grotesque resorts to hybridity in an attempt to reclaim deviancy as inherent in the normative, if not to reverse its hierarchical position in relation to the normal. The grotesque, in an ironic turn, gives visibility to areas of reality formerly dismissed as a consequence of an ideological operation of deletion and appropriation. Artists who resort to the grotesque, or who put it centre stage, engage in the double practice of distortion as critical distancing, and the celebration of inclusive hybridity, which allows it to occupy an indefinite position verging on the normal / abnormal axis of received perception.

  • 1 Needing closer analysis, it could be argued that, in contrast with his earlier novels, the axis mad (...)

8In his sustained project of questioning any stable notions of literature and the present cultural climate, Jonathan Coe resorts invariably to the device of humour in its different forms: parody, satire, absurdity, the grotesque. The various manifestations of humour he endorses cannot be set apart as distinctive autonomous practices, but, rather, belong in a gradient where the grotesque acquires a prominent position, when it comes to eliciting confusion and perplexity in the reader. Stylistically, Harpham suggests a taxonomy of the grotesque which includes four categories or intensities: caricature; the comic grotesque (ludicrous or satiric); the fantastic grotesque (terrible); and the Gothic macabre (Harpham 464). The introduction of the uncanny highlights the contradictory nature of the grotesque phenomenon (Cokal 182). In fact, it is such combination of revulsion and comedy through hyperbole that stirs up ambivalent feelings of pleasure and aversion in the readers, triggering confusion and self-awareness about the instability of their position in the social continuum. Jonathan Coe’s fictions have been closer to the comic than to the fantastic or the Gothic extremes. However, in his latest novel, Number 11, he seems to have moved one step further in the direction of the latter by engaging in the parodic rewriting of the horror genre, the introduction of the fantastic in the plot, and a different treatment of the topos of madness.1

9Complementarily, Butter (338) approaches the grotesque from the fields of sense and signification:

a possible continuum is the axis ‘satire, the satiric grotesque, the absurd grotesque and the absurd’ […]  The difference between satire as such and grotesque satire lies in the fact that the grotesque constitutes a monstrous exaggeration of the already given satiric exaggeration […]  a clear delineation of the object of satire, however, is undermined to some extent by the monstrosity of the grotesque exaggeration with its ambivalent and polyvalent effect […] The difference between absurd grotesque elements and the absurd as such is quantitative: whereas the grotesque subverts certain cultural patterns of meaning making, the absurd negates the possibility of (existential) meaning as such […]

10Though not entirely agreeing with the notion of the absurd unfolded above, nor the narrow definition of the grotesque as mere monstrosity, what the quotation illustrates is the position of the grotesque within the space of comic techniques: it blurs distinctions; mingles categories; and dwells on unresolved contradictions and the pairing of opposites. Coe’s position in the aforementioned continuum lies somewhere in-between satire and the absurd. There, the grotesque is configured as the space of elusive, indeterminate laughter which resists easy categorisation. Furthermore, the liminal territory which the author consistently seeks through humour escapes the danger of incorporation, while preserving its subversive potential. To that effect, his narratives discard closure, so as to avoid collusion with grand narratives or ideological constructs disseminated through storytelling and popular genres. In Bhabha’s words:

[…] the importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity to me is the ‘third space’ which enables other positions to emerge. This third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom. (in Rutherford 211)

11It is arguable whether Jonathan Coe’s deployment of hybridity might translate into a concrete radical political agenda as the one advocated by Bhabha. Rather, he exposes the existing gap in conventional forms of signification and their inadequacy to represent the rapid transformations undergone by present-day societies. The burst of grotesque moments, conceived as inadequate, unfinished or perturbing images hints at such shortcomings, and the necessity to transcend them.

12When it comes to the absurd, Coe disseminates, in a number of his works, playful allusions to the theatrical genre, in the manner of teasing clues so characteristic of his writing. Thus, to mention just a few, The House of Sleep features a university student arguing about Harold Pinter’s male chauvinism. The spy couple in Expo 58 is also reminiscent of that appearing in Pinter’s The Birthday Party (itself opening in 1958, incidentally). And, significantly, in a review of an N. F. Simpson revival, written for The Radio Times, he describes the absurd in a way which informs his own use of comedy and places his works in the comic grotesque sequence discussed:

Simpson’s work is truly radical, in that it refuses to take anything seriously at all. He created a universe in which nothing makes sense: but quite often, nowadays, I can read the newspapers and watch the television news and suspect that I’m inhabiting it. His relentless absurdism has begun to seem much closer to reality than anything the kitchen-sink playwrights came up with. (Coe 2013, 70)

13With this declaration, the author identifies the current crisis lying behind traditional modes of representation when tackling the depiction of reality. Moreover, it is a statement about the power of comedy to distort what has been termed the ‘common sense view of the world’, that is, a subjective reality made normative, and accepted without any critical judgement. The grotesque, in Coe, produces a similar distorting effect in order to expose the existence of obscured and uncomfortable realities. Shifting the lens away from hegemonic constructions helps reveal fringe realities, which emerge in contrast with, and in spite of, those which tend to pose themselves as the authoritative, only possible representations of the real.

14In fact, the anecdotic blog entry in response to a reader’s query about an apparent incongruity of plot in The House of Sleep illustrates one of those moments when the inexplicable enters the narrative and is left unsettled in order to both puzzle and tease the reader. The question deals with the unlikely circulation of a film clip, from character Terry, all the way into Robert’s dreams, without any logical connection. Again, the author turns to N. F. Simpson in order to explain how certain breaches of rationality or narrative logic may enhance the reader’s critical awareness, due to their destabilising strength:

You are right, there is no rational explanation for this element in the plot of The House of Sleep. But allow me to quote to you some lines from NF Simpson’s wonderful play ‘If So, Then Yes’: ‘There are, in short, no rational grounds for reliance on the rational. Belief in the paramountcy of reason is the purest superstition’. (Coe 2012)

15The House of Sleep is by far the novel which most often resorts to the nonsensical as a primary trope. There, sleep and dreams appear as the liminal areas where rationality and affect interact freely in distorted fashion. The text revels in the blurring of boundaries through an accumulation of exaggeration and grotesque images, paralleled by the exuberance of textuality and conflicting narrative modes. Regarding character, Sarah’s narcolepsy fudges her perception of reality and dreams, whereas, on the other hand, Robert/Cloe supersedes gender distinctions in comic grotesque fashion as a result of a ludicrous misunderstanding about the former’s sexuality. Additionally, the Gothic genre is subjected to parodic ridicule and distancing through the Mad Scientist / Madhouse theme, to free it from its inherent conservative nature.

16In essence, it is the Robert/Cloe image that encapsulates the liberating nature of the grotesque. Its sexual exuberance presents the ambivalence of death and rebirth with all its contradictions undecided. As such, the death of Robert’s male identity does not immediately presuppose the birth of his female self in exchange. Rather, the Robert/Cloe figure acquires a liquid personality which becomes a source of hope, even joy, in disaster, as attested by the final words in the novel. Thus, the concept of sexual identity is thoroughly deconstructed by positing an alternative model which does not require renouncing one in order to acquire the other. This, in itself, challenges the Western cultural construct of binary opposites, which locates the space of identity and meaning making in the negative area of opposition, that is, of suppression, in a relation of antagonism towards the Other. By contrast, the image of a fluid, hybrid and mutable sexual self defies readers’ cultural expectations about sex, gender and identity. In fact, its unstable nature both baffles and challenges them by celebrating deviancy through humour, exaggeration and distortion.

17Robert’s male desire prompts him to change sex to fulfil such male desire with a woman he believes to be a lesbian. So, when he/she realises that Sarah is heterosexual, then, he figures out that he has chances to get on with her either as a man or a woman, in a certain dissociation of body and mind. Sarah, on the other hand, undergoes a more classic journey of sexual discovery. Hers is not an outrageous image, though her narcolepsy allows for grotesque moments as well. And even though her story also questions, in a more traditional fashion, given notions of fixed sexuality, her character is passive and anodyne, in comparison with Robert’s excitement, unpredictability, and unscathed optimism. In that sense, the reader is drawn to sympathise and align with the latter rather than the former. Furthermore, Robert’s transgressive, albeit ambiguous nature, stresses the unappealing normalcy incarnated by Sarah. As such, Robert inhabits a position beyond, or outside, proper classification and moral judgement. He represents the in-between space that escapes categorisation, since it is permanently shifting, in the process of construction and transformation.

18The narrative’s ending signals in the direction of a positive future related to the aforementioned possibilities outside conventional sexual orientation. Robert’s/Cloe’s world is widened to indicate that there are other paths, even though they might be hard to tread. Their unpredictability makes them ambivalent, both frightening and hilarious. They preclude potential new things to come, that is, change and/or difference, with all the uncertainty and precariousness they imply: ‘[. . . she] thought to herself that, no matter what came of this evening, her life would never be quite the same again. There could be no going back’ (Coe 1997, 329).

19This flash of thought is immediately dismissed as sentimental and melodramatic in a self-conscious narrative gesture which encompasses the parody, as well as the momentum, of the traditional ending: ‘She realised that there was too much fatalism, too much melodrama in that idea’ (Coe 1997, 329). In a characteristic Coe moment, the undermining of established authority provides for the coexistence of contradictory stances: ‘There was no reason why this sudden resurrection of hope should change everything, no reason why she couldn’t go back to the clinic tomorrow, no reason why she shouldn’t continue to live without Sarah […]’ (Coe 1997, 329).

20Such a duality of feeling is mirrored by a duality of perception on Cleo’s underground journey to meet Sarah:

She saw happy couples, and unhappy couples; couples who had nothing to say to one another, and couples who could not keep their hands to themselves; couples who had just met, and couples who seemed to be on the verge of splitting up […] and she thought to herself: Yes, I can take my place with these people. Whatever else has gone wrong, whatever other mistakes I may have made, I know who I am, now. I know who I am, and it suits me. (Coe 1997, 329–30)

21The revelation is checked by a final contradiction in yet another moment of narrative denial and self-parody:

[…] and the moment she saw her, Cleo knew that she had been lying to herself; knew that she could not do without this woman at all. It wasn’t possible, and never had been.
It was all she could manage to say, at first. Sarah stared back at her, not recognizing, not yet guessing.
‘Do I know you?’
‘Of course you do,’ she said. ‘It’s me: Robert’. (Coe 1997, 330)

22The story stops at this point, leaving the encounter inconclusive, and the reader confused at Robert’s actual identity, after having oscillated from one pole to the other in the course of one page. What transpires, after all, is the gender hybridity which subverts received ideas of sexual identity. The Appendices that follow, fragmented pieces of fictional paratextuality, rather than narrative, add to the disruption of conventional authority. Moreover, these conflicting modes of textual representation underline the reader’s exposure to the mediated nature of perception. Besides, humour and the grotesque attain in this case a double objective. On the one hand, the comic normalises Robert’s/Chloe’s sexual behaviour, which might, otherwise, have been rejected or considered inexplicable by some readers. Provoking a respectful and understanding laughter, Otherness can find a place in the a priori hostile dominant discourse. On the other hand, Coe avoids the pitfalls of caricature and derision, traditionally attached to homophobic humour, because grotesque excess and exaggeration allow the act of acceptance to preserve the transgressive nature of this conflicting, unfinished character.

23The continuum, satire, the grotesque and the absurd, can be spotted also in the ‘swimming trunks’ episode from The Rotters’ Club. Benjamin experiences a moment of horror and panic at having forgotten his swimsuit. The punishment for such an offence consists of standing naked in front of the rest of the class in what can be considered a descent into the lower levels of the body and ridicule. It is certainly a comic moment for the reader, although a disturbing one for the character. And the narrative must, and does, adopt a restrictive and subjective point of view in order to convey the ambivalence of the gesture. Moreover, Coe neutralises any form of identification with the protagonist’s anxiety by advancing the felicitous outcome of this potentially dramatic occasion. The description of a previous, more Byronesque, attitude to the punishment by the confrontational and defiant Chapman serves that purpose:

Chapman, for instance, had forgotten his trunks so often that most people were convinced he did it on purpose. But it goes without saying that he was the proud owner of a quite colossal member, which on the many awestruck occasions it had been exposed to public view had been compared variously to a giant frankfurter, an overfed python, a length of lead piping, the trunk of a rogue elephant, a barrage balloon, an airport-sised Toblerone and a roll of wet wallpaper […] (Coe 2001, 65)

24To match the events, the language becomes increasingly hysterical, with the in crescendo description of Chapman’s penis, as well as the outrageous comic laughter that it elicits overall. However ludicrous it might appear, though, the episode acquires its grotesque nature precisely at the aftermath of Benjamin’s tragic conflict, when, unexpectedly, a pair of swimming trunks is produced from nowhere to save him from the ignominy of exposing his bare body.

25The scene, for Benjamin, becomes a revelation, a mystic moment that resembles a transformation in religious terms. The low, grotesque, meets the sublime in parodic form. Benjamin’s prayers are answered in the form of a mock miracle, at least from his own desperate perspective:

In fact, as he would discover during the swimming lesson, it was an absolutely windless day, so this could not have been an earthly breeze at all. It was the breath of God […] as Benjamin approached it [the locker], all points seemed to converge on this locker, as if he were seeing it through a distorted lens. It spoke to him. It beckoned him […] Nothing mattered. Nothing would matter from now on, ever again, for as long as Benjamin lived. (Coe 2001, 71–72)

26And it is through a ‘distorted lens’ that the instant is presented in order to achieve the parody of the sublime through Benjamin’s restricted point of view, and Jonathan Coe’s satirical comic distancing. The character’s transformation builds up in intensity to evoke a state of spiritual transfiguration: ‘[…] from now on nothing could shake his faith in humanity, or the essential rightness of things. And the same smile—beatific, serene—was his only response […] “They were a gift,” but that was the closest he would ever come to explaining the mystery […]’ (Coe 2001, 72–73).

27The episode is never resolved or explained logically in narrative terms, even though it is established as a touchstone in forging Benjamin’s subsequent conservatism and introspective personality. As such, it introduces a subtle social criticism by highlighting how the learning process of those destined to rule and run the country might be conditioned by the eccentric and capricious anecdotes of their school days. The ensuing narratorial intrusion elaborates on the fact, while depriving the experience of any validity or authority whatsoever: ‘They [the swimming trunks] entered, for a while, the arcane and changeful mythology of King William’s school, and then were quietly forgotten. Other wonders took their place’ (Coe 2001, 73).

28The interaction of grotesque realism and the absurd, derived from the narratorial voice’s obstinacy to withhold a believable explanation, pinpoints the discontinuities in the apprehension of reality. Thus, the narrative alternates from the sphere of recognisable social and cultural totalisations to that of amazement and lack of signification. The powerful image of Chapman’s masculinity suffers the excess of caricature, relying heavily on stereotype and cultural prejudice. As such, his virility questions the efficacy of the punitive action and the traditional values attached to it. Likewise, the irreverence of the exploit reverses in carnivalesque fashion the intended reinforcement of authority, and exposes its arbitrariness and ridiculousness. In contrast, Benjamin’s case attracts the reader’s identification as an instance of more believable fictional character building, drawing on the incongruities of his personal experience. For him, a traditional person at heart, it is inconceivable to perform such a defiant act as Chapman’s against the established authorities. Therefore, his current universe collapses and must be restored with an inexplicable grotesque anecdote, which emphasises the absurdity both of the punishment and its resolution. Ultimately, Chapman’s and Benjamin’s adventures play against each other to erode their own potential hegemonic position in the discourse, the former’s aligning itself on the side of the comic ridiculous; the latter’s on the comic absurd. At any rate, both occurrences instantiate the grotesque’s power for social critique.

29The chapter closes with Benjamin’s vision of a great twentieth-century poet talking to the class, whom he construes as a divine creature. This provokes in him a suppressed outburst of indeterminate laughter: ‘Dustclouds swirled in the beams of gold around Francis Piper’s dove-white, angel-white hair, and it was all Benjamin could do to stop from laughing out loud. It was everywhere. Divine Grace was everywhere’ (Coe 2001, 73). Exhilaration becomes the physical expression of his relief and urgent need for the incident to cohere. However, the realm of sheltered certainties which he desperately seeks to recover has been compromised by his endorsement of this pseudo-religious interpretation. And so has his laughter, which contains the playful dismissal of any claim at seriousness. It is, therefore, a conflicting, elusive laughter, in the same fashion as the whole episode remains unresolved. Eventually, from the lower parts of the body, all the way to the sublime, via anguish, terror and awe, the journey is completed for Benjamin as a parody of James Joyce’s epiphanies. Introducing the grotesque coexistence of opposites, Jonathan Coe applies the distorted lens to events in order to question a number of institutions and assumptions: traditional education, religion, the literary establishment, to mention just a few, all stripped from their solemnity in the same fashion as the boys had to get stripped naked.

30In What a Carve Up!, Jonathan Coe draws a grotesque picture of Thatcherism through the depiction of its protagonists. From its abstract, conceptual status, ideology is transferred to the material, physical plane. The higher stratum is ‘decrowned’ into the lower one of the body and bare passions (to mention Bakhtin (1984) on carnival and the grotesque). It is, in such a way, possible to subject Thatcherism to the grotesque and subvert its monolithic, compact nature. To that effect, the novel plunges into the paradox of engaging with Thatcherism in its own terms, that is, adopting the self-same political and rhetorical strategy of contradiction. But, whereas Thatcherism presented the contradictions of conservative ideology as a hegemonic narrative which cancelled or suppressed other alternatives, What a Carve Up! challenges any form of closure, be it ideological or narrative.

31Consequently, the distorted mirror, a stylistic marker of the grotesque, features prominently in the book in order to subject characters, historical events, story, narrative and the whole social order to a potentially destabilising ambivalent scrutiny. In fact, images of distorted reflection abound in the novel: from the recurrent reference to Cocteau’s film, Orpheus, and the nature of dreams; to the motif of actual and metaphorical madness, whether clinical or greed-induced, which defines the Winshaw family and current society at large. The whole novel becomes a funfair hall of mirrors, which contributes to the elaboration of the grotesque and the disclosure of the Winshaws themselves as a parade of freaks.

32The narrative grotesque, unlike the visual one, indulges in the recreation of claustrophobic spaces and atmospheres, which are normally accompanied by self-conscious narrative devices associated with narrow points of view or monologic voices. Highly unreliable narrators are employed to highlight the distorted nature of perception, the shortcomings of representational strategies and the defective quality of communication. What a Carve Up! confronts the claustrophobic, implausible point of view of narrator Michael Owen, with the polyphony of narrative textuality. In their own right, both devices contribute to the fudging of perception through exaggeration: the exuberant quality of the writing overflows the narrative, bursting at the seams of the story and the whole narrative construct as an instance of Bakhtinian comic heteroglossia. To that avail, the adult Michael Owen is presented at the outset as a recluse who has not left his own apartment for about three years. Verging on madness, he is unable to respond even to the most ordinary and quotidian stimuli. At this particular juncture, the grotesque manifests itself by way of an initial sexual image, that of the main character masturbating in response to the erotic arousal caused by a film sequence between Shirley Eaton and Kenneth Connor. The comic / distasteful portrayal operates as the visible exponent of a traumatic childhood birthday experience, now frozen in time, and leading him to paralysis. Michael seems condemned to re-enacting the scene in sublimated televisual mode until Fiona appears in his life to put an end to the vicious circle in which he was immersed.

33In a 1960s classic male voyeuristic fantasy of sexual teasing through insinuation and comic double entendre, Kenneth Connor observes Shirley Eaton undress through the mediated reflection on the room mirror. The candour and innuendo of their performance replicates that of a standard boy’s peeping experience. At such a moment, the male audience is degraded into the position of naughty, misbehaving children. However, the mirror, in this case, while providing access by glimpsing, also stresses frustration at the impossibility for the object of desire to be possessed, as is young Michael’s case. Ironically, the scene incorporates within its own structure the distancing element which may leave it open to criticism. Whereas the film ignores such a possibility, which emerges in spite of itself, the novel, by contrast, adopts it as a pivotal strategy of narrative and ideological destabilisation. In the text, the intrusion of the mother’s and grandmother’s point of view, the women characters involved in this part of the story, discloses the implicit sexist approach embedded in what is being displayed on screen as an innocent, innocuous comic gag, normalised through humour. Comedy is, in such a manner, played against the grain so as to expose its conservative component. Readers are made aware of the dangers of collusion through comedy, and, simultaneously, they are asked to accept humour as a major critical device, in a movement not dissimilar to The House of Sleep and The Rotters’ Club examples examined above. The strategy in question urges the reader to be alert and engage in a constant negotiation with the narrative.

  • 2 That such a rebirth is fuelled by a negative emotion of hatred would indicate the futility and ster (...)

34Another illustration of estrangement, related, this time, to parodic rebirth and death, can be found in section ‘September1990’ of Owen’s personal narrative. There, he proclaims: ‘And so, out of my loathing for these people came a rebirth of my literary personality, and out of this rebirth came a change of perspective, a change of emphasis, an irreversible change in the whole character of the work’ (Coe 1995, 90–91). Such a change of perspective includes the blurring of boundaries between fiction and reality, between historical fact and literary imagination, in the form of a distorted and exaggerated epiphanic statement resulting from Owen’s confused and over-excited imagination.2

35The subsequent underground journey to his publisher’s precludes his full descent to the grotesque. A carriage stop in the middle of a tunnel ends up in a comic misunderstanding about homoerotic arousal, topped by the gruesome detailed description of a burger-eating scene by a near-by passenger. Owen cannot resist the suffocating atmosphere and eventually faints. If this was to be the hero’s journey of discovery and regeneration in pursuit of his own destiny, it does not presage any positive outcome. Here, comedy and disgust, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the crammed carriage, and Owen’s restricted point of view, all reinforce his sense of vulnerability and disorientation:

He isn’t going to do this, he can’t be going to do this, but yes, with the merest grunt of apology—‘It’ll go cold otherwise’—he opened his gaping jaw and crammed in a great big mouthful of this damp, lukewarm cheeseburger and started chomping on it greedily, every chew making a sound like wet fish being slapped together and a steady dribble of mayonnaise appearing at the corners of his mouth. There was no question of being able to look away or block my ears: I could see every shred of lettuce and knob of gristle being caught between his teeth, could hear whenever the gummy mixture of cheese and masticated bread got stuck to the roof of his mouth and had to be dislodged with a probing tongue. Then things started to go a bit hazy, the carriage was getting darker and the floor was giving way beneath my feet and I could hear someone say, Watch out, he’s going! (Coe 1995, 98)

36The quotation constitutes the climax of what amounts to a four-page cinematic close-up of Owen’s inner reflections during his tube trip. The long list of every imaginable repulsive sensation, covering the five senses, displays the full extent of the Rabelaisian comic grotesque. This is Michael’s vision of hell, himself a modern ‘Orpheus descending to the underworld’ (Coe 1995, 94). And, as such, he is confronted with his own particular version of the deadly sins: gluttony, greed, lust and wrath, which are to be related to the fierce individualism of the historical period. As a direct correlate of such a piece of social satire, the defamiliarisation effected on the everyday brings to the fore the state of alienation pervading society when put to the test by the fringe gaze of this social misfit. However, such a desirable and/or regenerative outside take on events is compromised, once again, by the extravagant quality of Owen’s perceptions. His status is degraded and ridiculed by letting the reader have accesses to his deranged thoughts, thus, discarding him as a possible source of redemption or liberation in the text. Indeed, Michael Owen should not be construed as a crusader against the Gargantuan monstrosity of Thatcherism, but as being at its mercy, instead.

37The introduction of conflicting perspectives through the grotesque, that is, the distortion of reality by an already distorted mind, downgrades any authority or credibility. Furthermore, the combination of humour and disgust adds to the distancing effect and presupposes a space for outrage and indignation, which arises from the readers’ bafflement and disbelief at the unravelling of events. Due to a certain mimetic identification with, and contamination by, Owen’s point of view, the reader is made to stand in an irritating position within and without the narrative. Whether such a liquid, fluctuating space might be successfully filled up by the reader’s responses constitutes an insoluble mystery for the critic to muse over. I will argue, nevertheless, that there lies the “new ethical and emotional dimension” suggested by Guignery (436) in her discussion of the political component in What a Carve Up!

38By positing such a confused antihero, Jonathan Coe seeks to stir the reader’s growing sense of indignation as the logical conclusion of his/her laughter. Additionally, the relish for the lower strata of human experience questions in comic fashion prevailing commonplace notions of aggressive manhood. This is a defining feature of Coe’s protagonists, who must undergo a thorough belittling associated with a wider crisis of masculinity in current society. Thus, Coe also inscribes in Owen’s body the criticism and subversion of the dominant ideology.

  • 3 Such a quality will permit Number 11 to kick off from where the author left it in What a Carve Up!, (...)

39Symbolically, neither within Owen’s self-contained claustrophobic world, nor through the world of the satire inflicted on Thatcherism, can an alternative in-between space be found. If any, the positive message of the book emerges from the depiction of a cycle of renewal in a permanent state of flux and transformation.3 In that sense, the novel’s movement resembles that of tragedy, permeated, nonetheless, with the duality of grotesque humour so as to supersede the sombre panorama resulting from the thatcherite wasteland. In fact, What a Carve Up! is probably one of the bleakest and cruellest works by the author, a tone which he has softened in subsequent novels.

40As a matter of fact, the extermination of the whole Winshaw dynasty, responsible for the promotion and consolidation of the British neoliberal worldview, suggests that any possible escape from the current state of affairs must be sought elsewhere. Even Michael Owen must be disposed of, as also belonging to this legacy. However, the novel’s ending acquires a highly ambivalent nature, since the symbolic death of this political and social regime coincides with the posthumously published novel by the main character. This new beginning, or rebirth, coincides with the opening of the novel that the readers suddenly realise have just finished reading. Death and birth are conflated at the end of the story to provide a contradictory image, that of an ending / beginning which is, in turn, subjected to comic distortion and literary parody through the words of the fictional editor. This further avoidance of closure prevents the text from becoming a case of replacing one stale ideological stance with another (see Prado-Pérez 2006).

41Throughout What a Carve Up!, Jonathan Coe subjects Thatcherism to a process of corrective exaggeration and distortion in order to shake its social and cultural hegemonic position. In Bakhtin’s words: ‘natural catastrophes, like other catastrophes, usually also awaken historical criticism and lead to a revision of all dogmatic positions […]’ (Bakhtin 340). We might or might not consider Thatcherism a natural catastrophe. It is arguable, too, whether it was inevitable or not. At any rate, by giving material shape to the abstract ideological constructs of his own times, Coe’s literary production culminates in an updated version of Bakhtinian carnival and the subversive strengths of the popular, where intrusive grotesque images interrogate narrative denouement and its meaning.

42Such a device can be accounted for by resorting to the writer’s own metanarrative explanation in The Rotters’ Club, regarding the holiday Benjamin and his family had spent in Denmark: ‘[…] when the climax occurred: I was reading Henry Fielding […]  half an hour later, as I was deeply immersed in the story of The Man of the Hill, that curious lengthy digression which seems to have nothing to do with the main narrative but is in fact its cornerstone […]’ (Coe 2001, 127).

43It is these ‘curious’ textual moments, which apparently ‘have nothing to do with the main narrative’, that carry the destabilising potential associated with comedy and the grotesque. Equally, the grotesque unleashes a myriad of contradictory forces which attract and repel. Its distorted look upon reality prompts laughter and disgust simultaneously, and triggers, in return, a sophisticated, intellectual reaction associated with social and political awareness.

44This ambivalent elicitation of laughter constitutes a response to confusion and disorientation, to the fear springing from the lack of control over events, or more precisely, over their interpretation. In such a way, a thorough exposure of the ideological constructs disseminated through established narrative forms and modes of storytelling is undertaken, which, in the least, demands of the reader to adjust her/his expectations. In Coe’s works, the grotesque is articulated as the space in-between, understood as the subversive and unsettling element which may overcome the shortcomings of both satire and the absurd: whether the latter’s depoliticised nature, or the former’s easy naturalisation and incorporation into the status quo.

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Bakhtin, M. M., Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Barasch, Frances K., ‘The Grotesque as Comic Genre’, Modern Language Studies 15.1 (winter 1985): 3–11.

Butter, Stella, ‘The Grotesque as a Comic Strategy of Subversion: Mapping the Crisis of Masculinity in Patrick McGrath’s The Grotesque’, Orbis Litterarum 62.4 (2007): 336–52.

Coe, Jonathan, What a Carve Up!, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

Coe, Jonathan, The House of Sleep, London: Viking, 1997.

Coe, Jonathan, The Rotters’ Club, London: Viking, 2001.

Coe, Jonathan, ‘Re: A question about “The House of Sleep”’, Jonathan Coe–Writer, 19 June 2012, last accessed at On October 3, 2015.

Coe, Jonathan, Marginal Notes. Doubtful Statements. Non-Fiction, 1990-2013, London: Penguin, 2013.

Coe, Jonathan, Number 11, London: Viking, 2015.

Cokal, Susann, ‘“Hot with Rapture and Cold with Fear”. Grotesque, Sublime, and Postmodern Transformations in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume’, The Philosophy of Horror, ed. Thomas Fahy, Lexington: UP Kentucky, 2010, 179–98.

Guignery, Vanessa, ‘“Colonel Mustard, in the Billiard Room, with the Revolver”: Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! as a Postmodern Whodunit’, Études anglaises 64.4 (Oct.-Dec. 2011): 427–38.

Harpham, Geoffrey, ‘The Grotesque: First Principles’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 34.4 (Summer 1976): 461–68.

Prado-Pérez, José Ramón, ‘Popular Culture, Formal Experiment and Social Critique in Jonathan Coe’s Postmodern Fictions’, Literatura y cultura popular en el nuevo milenio: Actas del II Congreso Internacional de la Sociedad Española de Estudios Literarios de Cultura Popular (SELICUP), eds. Manuel Cousillas Rodríguez, José Ángel Fernández Roca, Pablo Cancelo lLópez, Rubén Jarazo álvarez, La Coruña: Servicio de Publicacions Universidade da Coruña, 2006, 963–78.

Russo, Mary, The Female Grotesque. Risk, Excess and Modernity, London: Routledge, 1995.

Rutherford, Jonathan ed., ‘The Third Space. Interview with Homi Bhabha’, Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (1990), London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1998, 207–21.

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1 Needing closer analysis, it could be argued that, in contrast with his earlier novels, the axis madness/normality is reversed in Number 11. This work takes as its point of departure the premise that madness has installed itself as the rule through which events are to be interpreted. This can be attested by the motto selected to open the book, Mortimer Winshaw’s final remark about greed and madness in What a Carve Up!, uttered by a deranged man himself. Ironically, the gesture itself rests upon the literary convention which highlights the lucidity of madness.

2 That such a rebirth is fuelled by a negative emotion of hatred would indicate the futility and sterility of the attempt, particularly, if we compare it with Fiona’s altruistic, unselfish attitude. Significantly, Phoebe, the other female character showing traits of positive humanity, is spared from the final slaughter to reappear in Number 11, Coe’s latest novel to date. Her presence there highlights the resilience of the common people who have been relegated to the fringes of society, precisely for their stubbornness not to conform, and remain attached to humane values.

3 Such a quality will permit Number 11 to kick off from where the author left it in What a Carve Up!, and examine such liminal, ambiguous spaces of potential subversion, which he had left lingering on in 1994.

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Référence électronique

José Ramón Prado-Pérez, « ‘There’s a Lot to Be Said for Making People Laugh’: The Grotesque as Political Subversion in Jonathan Coe’s Fiction », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 27 juin 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3336

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José Ramón Prado-Pérez

José Ramón Prado-Pérez is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Universitat Jaume I de Castellon, Spain. He specialises in British contemporary theatre with an emphasis on post-war political drama, about which he has published extensively. Other research interests include popular culture and literature, film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays and British contemporary metafiction. He is the founder and editor in chief of Cultural, Language and Representation, a Cultural Studies journal published by Universitat Jaume I. He has participated in the Research Project “Estudios sobre intermedialidad como mediación intercultural”, a three-year research project funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (FFI2008-05388); and is currently a member of “Ethical Issues in contemporary British Theatre since 1989: Globalisation, Theatricality, Spectatorship”, a research project funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (FFI2012-31842).

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