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Alex Callinicos


Right on target

(March 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995, p. 31.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What a Carve Up!
Jonathan Coe
Viking £10.99

Perhaps this only goes to show what a philistine I am, but in my experience politically right-on experimental fiction is often pretty dull. Encouraged by people whose opinion I respect, I’ve dutifully soldiered through some of the novels of Toni Morrison, but have found in them mainly an admirable substitute for mogadon.

This helps to explain why I found Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! such a delightful surprise. Vastly praised by reviewers, this is the rare case of a product living up to its hype, a novel that manages to be inventive, funny, and fiercely political. It is a very carefully wrought book, constructed by means of a variety of narrative devices, and written from diverse subjective viewpoints. Biography, autobiography, straight narration, diaries are woven together into a vast and complex circular structure. What a Carve Up!, a comedy-horror film of the early 1960s starring Kenneth Connor, Sid James and Shirley Eaton, provides the novel with its title, the main character’s most important childhood memory, and the storyline of its climax.

The point of all this formal invention isn’t, however, to produce yet another postmodernist pastiche. Coe’s target is quite simply Tory Britain. Its corruption, greed, and selfishness are ruthlessly exposed in the shape of the Winshaws – a peculiarly obnoxious upper class family who eagerly seize on the opportunities offered by the Thatcher era to add to their already considerable wealth. Coe zestfully paints the portraits of a vile pack of ruling class gargoyles – a right wing columnist, an ex Labour MP turned NHS privatiser, an arms dealer, a factory farmer and a voyeuristic merchant banker.

Yet the story of the Winshaws, told with brilliant zest and wit, is interwoven with another, that of the moral toll Thatcherism took of everyone who lived through the 1980s – the wasted lives and stunted horizons. Michael, a moderately successful novelist who’s hired by a renegade Winshaw to blow the gaff on the rest, is one of the casualties of the decade. Unable to break with the past, obsessed with his own personal family history, Michael squanders his talent, dwindling into a stupefied couch potato fixated on the fantasies of sexual happiness offered by films like What a Carve Up!

Finally the horrible Winshaws get their comeuppance, each in a way that reflects his or her own particular evil. And Michael fulfils the wishes embodied in all his main childhood dreams – though in a way that denies us and him a happy ending. But then, if the Winshaws have got their just deserts, the Tories and their class haven’t. Perhaps that is one of the things that Coe wants us to remember in this wildly enjoyable but very angry book.

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