The Rotters’ Club by Jonathan Coe

A review of the contemporary literary novel The Rotters’ Club by Jonathan Coe.

Jonathan Coe’s comic novels have always tended towards a class-conscious blend of satire, humour and heart, and nowhere is this better exhibited than in The Rotters’ Club, a story of bell-bottomed blood brothers navigating puberty and experiencing the world through the blinkered prism of teenage peepers.

Set in Birmingham in the 1970s against the looming backdrop of union strikes and the spectral threat of IRA bombings, the novel follows Ben Trotter (nicknamed ‘Bent Rotter’) and his rag-tag group of mates (from a single sex grammar school in what is ostensibly a coming-of-age story.

All the key touchstones of male adolescence are deftly navigated through a terrain of prog rock and power cuts, while at the same time giving a knowing admonishment to the sense of hypocrisy espoused by the parents, and how pro-union socialist favour never quite sat right with the elitism of grammar schooling, and arguably still doesn’t to this day.

The Rotters’ Club takes you back to a historical time period addled with industrial action when homework was done in the dark due to blackouts, where the only distraction from political unrest was (shock horror!) a Soft Machine LP. Despite its drab portrayal of the mid seventies, the humour cuts through thanks largely to the wit and warmth of its schoolboy characters, each of whom compel you to read on despite Coe’s playful but sometimes confounding literary style.

In fact, Coe’s writing may baffle some – particularly its rather jarring stream-of-consciousness ending – as will his tendency to occasionally tell the story through news articles, interviews and even letters, at times. What may put others off is The Rotters’ Club’s arguable lack of a discernible arc – it’s episodic but fails to offer a sense of finality which genre fiction fans will crave.

I don’t see this open-endedness as a bad thing – The Rotters’ Club aims to tell its story with the hard-nosed but sincere sense of serio-comic realism only a real life could convey. It’s for this reason the characters keep you most engaged, almost as though Coe is subtly implying that it’s the people themselves who redeem an era, not the era itself (if anything, the 1970s often feel like they’re portrayed as a rather sickly decade).

I feel it’s this character-centric approach is what redeems The Rotters’ Club, as far as Coe’s writing goes, along with the humorous dialogue it sparks off. Towards the end of the novel, by conflating the emergence of punk rock (i.e. The Clash) with the rise of Thatcherism, you can almost sense Coe’s satirical dig at the individualist ethos which would grow to dominate 1980s yuppie culture as being part and parcel of the same zeitgeist.

Incidentally, this novel’s sequel, The Closed Circle, took this idea further by revisiting many of the same characters in this book twenty years on in the New Labour era, but that’s a review for another time. For now, however, if you want a very rich read capturing the absurdities, hopes and fears of a generation of teens in 1970s Britain, The Rotters’ Club certainly won’t fail to disappoint you.

Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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