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

Bleak Humour: Jonathan Coe’s Politeness of Despair in The Rotters’ Club

Humour noir : la politesse du désespoir dans The Rotters’ Club
Christian Gutleben

Résumés

Ce qui frappe d’emblée au sujet de l’humour de Jonathan Coe dans The Rotters’ Club, c’est sa différence radicale avec le ludisme ontologique et textuel du postmodernisme tel qu’il est défini par Linda Hutcheon, Lance Olsen ou Patrick O’Neil. The Rotters’ Club est, entre autres, un roman social et historique, terrain d’archives des luttes nobles et futiles des années 1970 en Angleterre et son humour est de ce fait constamment tributaire d’une volonté de consigner sans fard les enjeux du passé et en particulier la perte d’une série d’illusions tellement indispensables. Étonnamment, l’humour fonctionne d’abord comme une fausse piste narrative, la tonalité légère des chapitres initiaux établissant un contrat de lecture qui ne laisse en rien prévoir la mort violente de l’un des personnages principaux. Sombre et parfois noire, l’humour de Coe permet de maquiller et d’enjoliver le didactisme d’un roman qui s’efforce de reproduire dans le détail le contexte politique et culturel d’une époque révolue. L’amertume des illusions perdues, autant sentimentales que sociales, pourrait expliquer l’ambiguïté de cet humour, politesse du désespoir mise en œuvre pour rire afin de ne pas pleurer. L’objectif de cette réflexion sera de tenter d’analyser la complexité de l’humour dans ce roman, un humour désespéré mais humaniste, cynique mais engagé.

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1In Comedy After Postmodernism, Kirby Olson states, or restates, that ‘[t]he curious phenomenon of humor is central to the postmodern enterprise’ (Olson 4). The conflation of humour and postmodernism has been the object of several studies and Patrick O’Neil, for example, argues that such a combination occurs ‘as soon as the element of reflexivity becomes ostentatious, as soon as the telling of the tale becomes ostentatiously more important than the tale told, as soon as the narrator steps forward and steals the limelight usually  […]  reserved for the characters’ (O’Neil 260). For Lance Olsen, postmodern humour ‘delights in its own sense of process. Indeed, process is everything because the goal is at best uncertain, at worst inexistent’ and he adds that ‘there is no meaning tucked under its [the text’s] surface’ (Olsen 19, 30). If one adds to these definitional elements centering on self-reflexivity Margaret Rose’s contention that the postmodern comic vision ‘provides for added meta-fictionality and self-awareness rather than despair’ (Rose 231), it may become understandable that, for Olson, postmodern texts ‘thus often resist a political or ethical reading altogether’ (Olson 17). Jonathan Coe’s humorous fiction challenges, debunks and goes beyond such textual and ontological playfulness, it radically disclaims the resistance to an ethical or political reading.

2Naturally, debunking postmodernist ludism does not mean entirely rejecting it and The Rotters’ Club published in 2001 bears certain distinctive traces of postmodernist self-reflexivity, particularly in its narrative postures. The embedding narrator begins her tale by inviting her diegetic narratee: ‘Come with me  […]. Let’s go backwards. Backwards in time’ (Coe 2002, 3), but, of course, this invitation is also addressed to the reader and immediately creates a metaleptic bond, a communication across ontological borders, just as the promise to discover a world ‘completely different’ (4) refers to the diegetic world of the past but also, self-reflexively, to the very nature of the fictional text. Similarly, the conclusion of the framing narrative evokes ‘a happy ending’ but then qualifies this possibility: ‘But stories never end, do they? Not really. All you can do is choose a moment to end on’ (402). Such insistence on the unfinished course of stories in general and of this tale of the 1970s in particular is manifestly meant to encourage the reader to assess the evolution–or lack thereof–of the social problems evoked in today’s civilisation, but, again, the discourse on endings in the ending of the novel is foremost a typically metafictional device which pulls the reader into the very process of fiction-making. Thought-provoking metafiction of the sort can also be found in the embedded narratives, for example, when Doug acknowledges that writing down a chain of events means ‘to falsify it’ and wonders whether narrative ‘serve[s] any purpose’ (128), or when Ben, the central character, considers writing ‘a brutally ironic chapter, so that his continuing pain and sense of rejection might be transmuted into high comedy’ (247), the idea of comedy as a remedy or a cover-up for pain standing here for the specular principle of the novel itself. In all these instances of metatextuality the emphasis is on discourse rather than story, on analysing illusion rather than creating it, on addressing the reader as interpreter rather than as recipient of entertainment. So, because it explicitly points to the reader’s role or activity and therefore creates a phatic complicity, metafiction fundamentally operates like and is akin to humour and irony in this connecting function. Since, according to Patricia Waugh, ‘the metacommentary provided by self-conscious fiction carries the more or less explicit message: “this is make-believe” or “this is play”’ (Waugh 35), it embodies a form of textual playfulness which further links up with the humorous attitude. As a self-reflexive narrative sometimes stepping outside the diegesis to question its own literary, generic or modal functioning, The Rotters’ Club is then also postmodernist, but the bond created with the reader through metafictional irony does certainly not fulfil the purpose of postmodernist humour and its demonstration of a ‘joyous relativity’ bent on ‘taking nothing–including its own (non)premises–very seriously’ (Olsen 27). Coe’s alliance with the reader through metafiction and humour appears more like an indispensable prerequisite to embark upon a literary voyage with highly axiological stakes and indeed also ethical ones for, as Vanessa Guignery has suggested: ‘[t]he specificity of Coe’s satire might be that it is more ethical than moralising in that it appeals to the reader’s empathy’ (Guignery 164).

3For Coe, then, the self-conscious games with the formal choices of the novel remain peripheral and his emphasis, including in his humorous posture, lays on a distinct referential world. By explicitly setting the action of his novel in Birmingham in the 1970s and by referring to specific places, events, or institutions Coe deliberately creates what Barthes notoriously described as ‘superlative effects of the real’ (Barthes 102) and thereby places himself outside or against the dominant theories of temporality of his time. For Zygmunt Bauman, the end of the second millennium, which coincides with the publication of The Rotters’ Club, is distinguished by ‘the movement from solid to liquid modernity, from kinetic to electronic speed, from the twentieth to the twenty-first century’ (Bauman 9). In a similar vein, Paul Virilio postulates that ‘the historic and classic time of succession’ has been superseded by the new concept of ‘instantaneity’ (Virilio 137). To this conception of a time and space in flux, of an immaterial civilisation, of a liquid time, of an ‘increasingly frictionless synchronisation of global culture’ (Boxall 21), Coe opposes a clear sense of diachronicity and localism. In The Rotters’ Club reality, historicity, and politics return with a vengeance. But his is not, or not only, a sociological and historical investigation, what stimulates Coe is the artistic revision of the past and this approach is inseparable from the distanced and relativist perspective of humour. The framing narrative, situated more than thirty years after the diegetic events, represents then the structural device which mimics Coe’s own retrospective account and this retrospective is then by nature ironical because the events, hopes and struggles are systematically introduced with the knowledge of their future, usually distressing, developments. Naturally such ironical procedures are not necessarily comic at all—as can be seen in the treatment of the novel’s first section entitled ‘The Chick and the Hairy Guy’.

4Reproducing as it does the binary structure of the title (and the spirit) of a tale, playing as it does with gendered oppositions and amorous expectations, but adding as it does the colloquial and flippant terms ‘chick’ and ‘guy’, this heading at once relates to and updates, signals and subverts, imitates and parodies the codes of the romantic tale. The light-minded tonality of this contemporary romance is sustained and exacerbated by the tendentious question ‘Have they, or haven’t they?’ (47) and the mischievously intertextual interrogation about ‘how far he can go’ (56). Naturally, this unmistakable reference to a crucial hypotext for a Birmingham novel of the 1970s, namely David Lodge’s How Far Can You Go? (1980), the title of which carries similarly bawdy implications and the narrative of which cultivates with derision the sexual uncertainties of the epoch, cannot but increase the impression of a comic pact of reading. The engineering of a comic context is pursued with the characterisation of precocious Paul as an uninhibited wiseacre who ‘has got a mind like the municipal sewer’ (95) and with schoolboy humour in the form of a list of metaphoric and hyperbolic synonyms for Chapman’s ‘quite colossal member’ (65) and a parallel prankster’s description of Benjamin’s organ ‘which no man, woman or child is ever  […] capable of seeing, without the use of a powerful electron microscope […]; in fact so small that that a team of biologists, working around the clock, are still struggling to prove its existence’ (66). Capitalising on Freud’s intuition that ‘a non-tendentious joke scarcely ever achieves the sudden burst of laughter which makes tendentious jokes so irresistible’ and that sexual jokes ‘must have sources of pleasure at their disposal to which innocent jokes have no access’ (Freud 139-140), Coe creates here a licentious atmosphere in the form a sexual comedy which seems utterly appropriate for a tale of teenagers’ love-affairs.

  • 1 Two observations seem called for in relation to this quotation in the context of The Rotters’ Club. (...)

5The humour in this opening section is not only sexual, though, it is also of a social kind. When her son’s art teacher flirtingly compares Barbara to Morales’s painting and asks her ‘You don’t know The Virgin and Child?’, her answer, ‘We don’t get out to pubs much’ (50), is of course totally inadequate and the comic resides in the very typical principle of a dialogue at cross-purposes. Meanwhile, the precious and very well-spoken art teacher is opposed to Barbara’s working-class husband for whom Doctor Zhivago becomes ‘Doctor Chicago’ (141) and who, at a dinner-party, insists on calling his rival ‘a coward. C-O-W-E-R-D’, a mistake which urges Barbara to comment, ‘[a] way with words’ (57), an ironical rejoinder which further belittles the husband in relation to the teacher. The laughter encouraged by these cultural or linguistic blunders manifestly relies on the reader’s sense of superiority and illustrates then Bergson’s theory according to which ‘the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart’ (Bergson 5).1 Combined with the numerous instances of ribald humour, such social clumsiness–which includes ‘The Chick’ who ‘thought “platitudinous” was an animal they had in Australia’ (13)–creates a comic context which leaves the reader totally unprepared for the conclusion of this tale in which an IRA bomb kills off the Hairy Guy at the very moment when he was going to ask the Chick to marry him.

  • 2 It seems hard to deny the bitterness, indeed the cruelty, of the irony which consists in stating ab (...)

6How can one interpret this explosive ending? From an ideological point of view, this brutal intrusion of horror in the midst of humour highlights the novelist’s determination not to restrict his fictional concerns to the world of comedy. Comedy means exaggerating, reducing or caricaturing reality and The Rotters’ Club clearly sets out to include all the facets of an actual English microcosm in the 1970s. The introduction of the bomb stands then for the inevitable contribution of a political dimension in the private sphere and the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy represents then an accurate reflection of the complexity of social life. If the comic passages both refer to and reflect the pleasures of life, including the pleasure of reading, Coe never forgets, and makes sure the reader never forgets, to take into consideration history’s and society’s cruelties. Next to the very light comedy of sexual jokes and linguistic malapropisms Coe thus constantly introduces instances of ruthless irony. The best example is probably situated in the passage where Sam, the specialist of preteritions, claims he is ‘not one for making predictions’ and then makes the following prediction: ‘I’ll tell you this, and I’ll stake my life on it: the Irish business’ll be over–over and done with–two years from now […] Because the IRA haven’t got the guts for a real fight’ (57). Read in the light of the subsequent deadly attack, this prophecy appears gruesomely ironic not only because of its utter inaccuracy but also because the life Sam so flippantly staked will indeed be taken and because the guts he mentioned metaphorically will be spilled literally. Pitiless like fate, such irony has no connection with the comic anymore and confirms Linda Hutcheon’s verdict that ‘irony’s edge is often a cutting one’ (Hutcheon 15).2

7From a novelistic point of view, this abrupt change of tonality and modality, this unpredictable shift from comedy to tragedy, this brutal breach in the pact of reading, is orchestrated so as to generate an emphatic effect of unexpectedness. The deadly explosion cannot but fundamentally unsettle and challenge the reader who had so far been placed in the frame of a humorous tale of the recent past. Humour is then very astutely and unusually used by Coe as a narrative red-herring, a structural device at the service of diegetic surprise. A similar narrative shock is implemented in What a Carve Up! in which the playful narrative of the protagonist as misfit, socially and sexually out of practice, leads up to the death of his sole friend and succour in a tragically ill-managed hospital. In both cases, humour proves to be a false promise and a strategic tool used to startle the readers and to force them to step out of their role as addressees of a joke or a story into interpreters of this narrative scandal–standing of course for other types of scandal, existential, social or political.

8That humour is consistently made to coexist with the harshness of social reality can also be perceived in the structural principle of intertwining various narratives. The Rotters’ Club relates the stories of several teenagers but also of their parents who are workers or union leaders, housewives or secretaries and these stories are mixed and intermingled. The narrative whole thus amalgamates school pranks and union strikes, amorous mishaps and the rise of fascism, desultory escapism and harsh reminders of reality. A case in point would be the hilarious account of Sam’s long-running revenge against the art teacher who seduced his wife which is bracketed together with the terrible (and historically accurate) report of the restructuring of Birmingham’s car manufacturing company. Putting together rare words found in his bedside book Twenty-five Magic Steps to Word Power, the bus-driver keeps looking for the right sentence that would achieve the teacher’s comeuppance and imagines therefore retorts like ‘your contemptibly inelastic fealty to the twin malpractices of sensualism and dissipation stimulates only my profoundest, most hypogeal and bathyphilous inculpation’ (300, original italics). His colourful and often lewd lists of insults are italicised in the text so as to typographically underline the parallel with another italicised list, that of the key-words the chairman intends to use for his speech of managerial politics including ‘contingency, over-manning, product strategy, over-capacity’ and ‘de-manning’ (300). The conclusion to Sam’s punitive plan is as farcical as the outcome of the chairman’s announcement is dramatic. When the jealous husband finally picks up the phone to cut down his adversary, he finds himself at a loss for words and instead ‘blew the longest and loudest raspberry he had ever blown in his life’ (303), an instance of primitive rhetorics which manages to efficiently get rid of the man of letters; as for the chairman, his speech ends up with the announcement of ‘twelve and a half thousand redundancies’, a decision which means ‘weeks and months and maybe lifetimes of hardship and hopelessness that so many thousands of […] men were going to face in the bitter, market-driven era to come’ (304). The ‘bitter, market-driven era to come’ is of course precisely the era of both the extradiegetic narrators and the contemporary addressee of this fable of the 1970s and this dystopian context of the framing narrative is crucial in the act of decoding which can therefore hardly be altogether light-hearted. Now, this mixture of scatological humour and social tragedy can be construed in two ways: either one can conclude that The Rotters’ Club’s comedy is never untainted by the horrors of life or that the novel’s unsweetened referentiality is made bearable thanks to the awareness and the celebration of comedy in life. In other words, the humour of bleakness and the bleakness of humour are indistinguishable in this tale of serious frivolity.

9When merriment and affliction are not intertwined in the same chapter, they are juxtaposed in successive sections so that one always contaminates or qualifies the other. One of the most hilarious passages concerns Benjamin, the narrative’s main focaliser, when he wakes up with a hangover in the darkness of a wardrobe. And here is how his blurred consciousness perceives a breast: ‘He was holding something strange in his hand. An unidentified object. […] Then […] he began to explore the object further and discovered it was attached to other objects which seemed more familiar and recognizable. A human collarbone, for instance, and a shoulder and an arm’ (276). The humorous effect stems here from the combination of a comic situation and a comic mode of description consisting in the reification of a human part, almost a hypostatisation of sensuality, that is, in Bergsonian terms the reduction of the living to ‘a mere machine’ (Bergson 29), and also in the metonymic severance, and of course also enhancement, of the part from the whole as if the breast had an autonomous existence, as if it were a free-floating, self-sufficient entity. This markedly comic chapter, which goes on dwelling on the irresistible consequences of Benjamin’s hangover, is abutted on the section giving an account of a massive workers’ demonstration first presented as ‘an extraordinary display of faith and goodwill and solidarity’ (262) but which is then crushed by the police with an indiscriminate violence minutely described and signifying the brutal annihilation of social fellowship. So, the despondency of one chapter inevitable seeps into the lightness of the following one and laughter becomes systematically tinged with unease and the awareness of situations provoking what Michael Billig calls ‘unlaughter’ (Billig 175).

  • 3 The reference to Joyce is all the more unmistakable since Sam, who used to misspell ‘coward,’ is se (...)

10The novel’s fundamentally hybrid humour, inviting laughter and unlaughter, displaying mischievousness and misfortune, can best be illustrated and defined through its final section which switches from third-person narrative to stream of consciousness and thus immediately displays an ostensibly playful intertextuality. Indeed, using the stream of consciousness in the closing chapter of a novel inevitably means mimicking or transforming Joyce’s conclusion to Ulysses3 and also, because of the strong Lodgean intertext, the conclusive part of The British Museum Is Falling Down. Possibly as a response to Lodge’s parodic piece which replaced Joyce’s ‘yes’ with a more tentative ‘perhaps’, Coe reverts to the more assertive ‘yes’ (repeated no less than twenty-six times), certainly to emphasise the teenager’s sense of certainty. The choice of this paradigmatic sign of confidence is absolutely crucial in the generation of the irony which pervades the whole conclusive monologue, for the narrative is carefully organised so as to belie Benjamin’s unshakable trust in his love for Cicely. First of all, the embedding narrative makes clear that Benjamin never married Cicely and a prolepsis mentions an unsuccessful marriage to another woman (28). As if these clues were not self-sufficient, Sam is shown making two more of his invariably wrong predictions, namely that Benjamin and Cicely would ‘have a long and happy life together’ and that Mrs Thatcher would ‘never be Prime Minister of this country’ (399). By thus combining these two prophecies, Coe blatantly associates the debunking of sentimental as well as political illusions, the blighted hopes in both private and public spheres. The teenager’s undoubting ‘yes’ can then only be read ironically and his whole joyful celebration of love is unmade by the novel’s retrospective and dejected perspective.

11This disenchanted irony seems at work in the other intertextual games played in the final chapter. That Benjamin should quote T.S. Eliot’s famous lines, ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future’ (377, original italics), in a work where the diegetic future represents the reader’s present is of course ironical from a structural point of view since the knowledge of the future here invalidates the hopes of the past, time future gainsaying or unwriting time past. Similarly, his very Woolfian interrogation about ‘what a moment is, how long it lasts’, his insistence on the ’infinity of an instant’ (370), clearly reminiscent of Woolf’s moment which ‘partook […] of eternity’ (Woolf 122), appear almost incongruous concerning as they do Benjamin’s first sexual intercourse, the chapter’s intended sylleptic climax, whose very bawdy and ordinary nature clearly discredits it as an epiphanic moment of being. Apparently then, the literary games enacted in the final section all deride Benjamin’s youthful illusions, and also the novel’s other social and political illusions, but the fact that all these cultural parallels bear upon modernist writers may pave the way for another hermeneutic track. Could it not be argued that the conclusion’s transparent emulation of modernism may also represent an attempt at reproducing an aesthetics of emotion? If there is an undeniable bitterness in the disclosure of so many lost illusions, there is also a distinct tenderness for these teenagers and the intensity of their illusions. The poetic fervour and emotional exhilaration of Benjamin’s testimony dampen, then, and possibly even outshine his comic illusions.

  • 4 This is also Serge Chauvin’s hypothesis since he praises Coe for the entertainer’s moral elegance e (...)

12In the final analysis, The Rotters’ Club demonstrates also, and perhaps mainly, the complementarity between humour and the human for Coe’s humorous or ironic treatment of a set of collective delusions always adds a human, or humanist, touch to this fable of the inhuman logic of capitalism. The novel’s bleak humour and its social disenchantment therefore cannot and must not be disentangled from its furtive celebration of the very human possibility ‘that to be a bringer of laughter was in fact the holiest, most sacred callings’ (Coe 2002, 274). By thus associating what is proper to man to a denunciation of the political treasons of an epoch, Coe concretises the wish, expressed in What A Carve up!, for novels which ‘show an understanding of the ideological hijack which has taken place so recently in this country, which can see its consequences in human terms and show that the appropriate response lies not merely in sorrow and anger but in mad, incredulous laughter’ (Coe 1995, 277). In this humorous incredulity can be seen the essence of the combination between ‘postmodernism and comedy [which] are aligned in that they function by overturning master narratives and ridding metaphysics of transcendence and closure’ (Olson 6). In fact, The Rotters’ Club not only deconstructs metanarratives, it explodes them as is evinced by the deadly bomb which wipes out the Hairy Guy and which is the novel’s central metaphor signifying the blasting of hopefulness but with the politeness of despair, a determination to laugh so as to avoid crying.4 Ambiguous, hybrid, sweet and sour, humour is then at the image of the complexity of Coe’s literary project convincingly illustrated by Laurent Mellet (2015), a project mingling intertextual ludism, metafictional games and a ferocious concern for the real, a project satirising collective misjudgments but also celebrating emotion, a project both social and intimate, a project as political as ethical.

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Bibliographie

Barthes, Roland, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity, 2000.

Bergson, Henri, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Fred Rothwell, London: Macmillan, 1914.

Billig, Michael, Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour, London: Sage Publications, 2005.

Boxall, Peter, Twenty-First-Century Fiction: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: CUP, 2013.

Chauvin, Serge, ‘Préface: Le tram de nos vies’, Laurent Mellet, Jonathan Coe: Les Politiques de l’intime, Paris: PUPS, 2015, 7-12.

Coe, Jonathan, The Rotters’ Club (2001), London: Penguin, 2002.

Coe, Jonathan, What A Carve up! (1994), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

Freud, Sigmund, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey (1903), London: Pelican Books, 1976.

Guignery, Vanessa, ‘The Way We Live Now: Jonathan Coe’s Re-evaluation of Political Satire’, The British Contemporary Novel: 2008-2015, eds. Marc Porée and Vanessa Guignery, Études anglaises 68.2 (2015): 156–69.

Mellet, Laurent, Jonathan Coe: Les Politiques de l’intime, Paris: PUPS, 2015.

Olsen, Lance, Circus of the Mind in Motion: Postmodernism and the Comic Vision, Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1990.

Olson, Kirby, Comedy After Postmodernism: Rereading Comedy from Edward Lear to Charles Willeford, Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech UP, 2001.

O’Neil, Patrick, The Comedy of Entropy: Humour/Narrative/Reading, Toronto: Toronto UP, 1990.

Rose, Margaret, Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern, Cambridge: CUP, 1993.

Virilio, Paul, Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose, London: Verso: 2008.

Waugh, Patricia, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (1984), London and New York: Routledge, 1988.

Woolf, Virginia, To the Lighthouse (1927), London: Everyman’s Library, 1991.

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Notes

1 Two observations seem called for in relation to this quotation in the context of The Rotters’ Club. First, the anesthesia of the heart is indeed only momentary for the working class characters will have their moments of glory. And second, what is true for the comic seems hardly valid for humour which precisely encourages complicity, including complicity with the victims of life’s or fate’s irony.

2 It seems hard to deny the bitterness, indeed the cruelty, of the irony which consists in stating about such a tragic evening ‘it seemed like a good night for lovers’ and talking of ‘the good fortune he [the Hairy Guy] knew he was blessed with that night’ (102).

3 The reference to Joyce is all the more unmistakable since Sam, who used to misspell ‘coward,’ is seen reading Ulysses in the pub which constitutes the setting of Benjamin’s prolonged thought-process.

4 This is also Serge Chauvin’s hypothesis since he praises Coe for the entertainer’s moral elegance expressed in his sour comedies, ‘le divertissement comique comme masque d’un pessimisme foncier’ (Chauvin 7).

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Référence électronique

Christian Gutleben, « Bleak Humour: Jonathan Coe’s Politeness of Despair in The Rotters’ Club », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 25 juin 2017. URL : http://ebc.revues.org/3350 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3350

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Auteur

Christian Gutleben

Christian Gutleben est professeur de littérature britannique à l’Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis. Il est directeur de la revue Cycnos et dirige avec Marie-Luise Kohlke la série Neo-Victorian Studies dans laquelle quatre ouvrages sont déjà parus (Neo-Victorian Tropes of Trauma: The Politics of Bearing After-Witness to Nineteenth-Century Suffering, Rodopi, 2010, 412 p., Neo-Victorian Families: Gender, Sexual and Cultural Politics, Rodopi, 2011, 410p., Neo-Victorian Gothic: Horror, Violence and Degeneration in the Re-Imagined Nineteenth Century, Rodopi, 2012, 340p. et Neo-Victorian Cities : Reassessing Urban Politics and Poetics, Rodopi/Brill, 2015, 370p.) et deux autres volumes (sur l’humour et la bio-fiction) sont programmés pour 2016 et 2017. Il a aussi publié une monographie sur le roman universitaire anglais, une autre sur Graham Greene et une autre sur les rapports entre postmodernisme et culture victorienne.

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