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the Complete Review
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The Rotters' Club

Jonathan Coe

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Title: The Rotters' Club
Author: Jonathan Coe
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 414 pages
Availability: The Rotters' Club - US
The Rotters' Club - UK
The Rotters' Club - Canada
The Rotters' Club - India
Bienvenue au club - France
Erste Riten - Deutschland
La banda dei brocchi - Italia
El Club de los Canallas - España
  • A sequel, The Closed Circle, "resuming the story in the late 1990s", was published (in the UK) in 2004
  • The Rotters' Club was made into a TV mini-series in 2005, directed by Tony Smith

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-written, clever, entertaining look at Britain in the 1970s -- though the novel doesn't unfold in the most straightforward manner

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly A- 3/2002 Stephen Amidon
Evening Standard . 19/2/2001 Rachel Cusk
Evening Standard A 25/2/2002 David Sexton
The Guardian . 24/2/2001 Peter Bradshaw
The Independent A 3/3/2001 .
London Rev. of Books . 10/5/2001 Ian Sansom
The LA Times D 24/2/2002 Jonathan Levi
New Statesman . 3/3/2001 Hugo Barnacle
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 24/3/2002 Richard Eder
The Observer B- 25/2/2001 Adam Mars-Jones
Salon . 21/2/2002 Amy Reiter
San Francisco Chronicle A 31/3/2002 David Kipen
The Spectator A 24/2/2001 John de Falbe
The Times C 28/2/2001 Anna Shapiro
The Times A 10/3/2001 Paul Connolly
TLS A+ 23/2/2001 Henry Hitchings
The Village Voice C+ 26/2/2002 Todd Pruzan
The Washington Post A 3/3/2002 Chris Lehmann

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Coe fills in this broad canvas with a series of comic set pieces that poke gentle fun at his characters while also deepening their appeal. (...) Coe's attempts to tackle more serious themes prove less uniformly assured." - Stephen Amidon, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Like all of Coe's novels, The Rotters' Club is brilliant, funny, apposite, informed and unflaggingly truth-seeking. Does it achieve the authority, the political status, for which it so clearly strives ? This is somewhat harder to discern" - Rachel Cusk, Evening Standard

  • "(B)eneath all this entertainment, there's a deep and moving study of the intensity of youth, remembered rawly, but described with sophistication." - David Sexton, Evening Standard

  • "Jonathan Coe's genial, likeable novel can only be described as a kind of lit-prog-rock concept album (.....) Coe recreates the period with such loving accuracy that I frankly suspect him of having planted a secret microphone in the tin Oxford Mathematical Instruments box I carried around in my school days. (...) (A)s always with Jonathan Coe, the sheer intelligent good nature that suffuses his work makes it a pleasure to read." - Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

  • "(I)t's The Rotters' Club contra mundum in a society Coe exposes, layer by layer, as rotten to the core. (...) The Rotters' Club is a widely ambitious and entertaining undertaking which leaves so many stones unturned and stories tantalisingly untold that its sequel, The Closed Circle, is not only desirable but necessary." - The Independent

  • " Sad to say, the tempo not only lags but has all the canned appeal of a mid-1970s rhythm machine. Coe fails quite completely to create real characters to drive his historical novel. His gang of four and their supporting cast are less 1970s British equivalents of the American teenagers who populate American Pie, Bring It On and Ten Things I Hate About You, than the cartoons of Not Another Teen Movie with its pastiche of broad-band teenage stereotypes. (...) The Rotters' Club finishes not with a bang but with a threat: "There will be a sequel"" - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "There are many other elements to the story, and a nice mix of techniques: standard third-person narration, stream of consciousness, letters, magazine pieces, a speech made by Doug in later life, a short memoir written by Benjamin. Only the clumsy framing device, a sequence set in 2003, fails to work. (...) The Rotters' Club, for all its occasional overegging and its self-conscious deployment of issues, is a superior entertainment. The pages seem to turn themselves, and Coe's oblique humour allows the romantic and satirical to combine without undercutting each other." - Hugo Barnacle, New Statesman

  • "Its form owes something to Galsworthy and, in the dance of its characters through time, to Anthony Powell. In purpose and style it is entirely different. Its tinder-dry combustion of comic, indignant and elegiac suggests an Evelyn Waugh of the left, though not so well chiseled and a lot more discursive." - Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The school-as-microcosm idea, though, works best if the larger world doesn't feature, while, in fact, Coe is constantly bringing in wider issues. It's as if his research into the period has made him burningly aware in retrospect of everything he didn't register at the time (.....) The tone is uneasily comic or, at least, non-serious. (...) Works of literature aren't necessarily undone by mixed emotions and incoherent ideas, but The Rotters' Club is altogether too unsure what to mock and what to mourn." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "To be sure, Coe's '70s are rough going, certainly not the whitewashed, bell-bottom-ogling, smiley-face version the sitcoms would have us recall. The road to parity is littered with losses, blood, violence, injustice and needless death. (...) Though Coe resolves many of the elements of his story -- in some cases, perhaps, a bit too patly -- he lets some of the larger issues dangle." - Amy Reiter, Salon

  • "The Rotters' Club is a thrillingly traitorous work. It hums along for a hundred pages of wise comedy about teenage love's mortifications, then cold cocks us with an honest surprise as cruel as it is earned. (...) Coe gets steadily funnier, piling on some of the most engaging comic writing since Davies hung it up." - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(A) tremendous romp through the bizarre, often very funny culture of that troubled decade: the clothes, the music, the hair ... The social details are described by Coe with an accuracy and love that could make you doubt his sanity, but never his brilliance or his sense of humour. (...) The book is such fun that it is easy not to notice how subtle it is. (...) If I have quibbles with this book, they are that the 'bookend' structure is clumsy, and that the language -- unlike Salinger's -- is sometimes lax." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "What you have here is about 20 characters in search of, if not a plot, narrative drive or linking theme or some connection more meaningful than happenstances (...) What is needed here is a sense of consequence, of why things matter and to whom." - Anna Shapiro, The Times

  • "(T)he constant shifting between narrators can be confusing initially. However, Coe handles his complex approach to a complex era effortlessly, and the end product is a compulsive and gripping read. (...) It is, however, the narrative's seamless interplay between the seismic political events of the decade and the personal story it relates that really impresses." - Paul Connolly, The Times

  • "Coe writes perceptively about the unexpected and accidental intersection of individuals' priorities and commitments, and about the realizations these overlaps induce. He has a thoroughly eighteenth-century conception not only of narrative as a kind of coitus interruptus, but of the world as a giant physics experiment, in which the particular identities of different characters are perpetually colliding, fissuring and fusing. (...) (I)ts sophistication is veiled behind skein upon skein of endearingly unpretentious humour. The observational comedy is especially sharp." - Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(T)here aren't many satisfying payoffs, comic or otherwise, in The Rotters' Club, Coe's gloomy sixth novel, about teens enduring a confusing time (the mid '70s) and place (suburban Birmingham, in England's sagging rust belt). (...) Coe's logic gives us a realistically wistful story, but an unfinished one, abandoning numerous characters and tensions when it ends. That puts a heavy burden on the future Act II of The Rotters' Club -- and only Coe's hardiest readers will resist the temptation to sneak out during intermission." - Todd Pruzan, The Village Voice

  • "Coe delivers a remarkably fine-grained portrait of how the signal upheavals of the time -- in everything from labor relations to musical tastes to racial politics -- convulsed the most basic ways that people made sense of their world. (...) (T)he novel stands as a welcome, complicating rebuke to the hoary genre categories that lurk behind reviewing clichés: It's both reflective and compelling, satirical and tender, wildly imaginative and painstakingly realistic." - Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Rotters' Club is a novel of Britain in the 1970s, a surprisingly rich and varied work about that odd and already so distant decade. Much of The Rotters' Club is clearly autobiographical. Coe, born in 1961, is about the same age as the four boys around whom most of the narrative revolves. He comes from near Birmingham -- the locale of most of the novel -- and attended King Edward's School there; in the novel, much of the action takes place at a King William's. (The name of the central (and most Coe-like) character, Ben Trotter (affectionately known as Bent Rotter) is certainly also a sort of homage to his King Edward's School English teacher, Tony Trott.)
       The novel is framed by brief introductory and concluding sections, set in Berlin, in 2003. It is the next generation -- the children of the youths that are at the centre of the novel -- that look back on their parents' formative years. A planned (and now available) sequel (The Closed Circle) continues the tale, jumping to the late 1990s.
       The novel proper -- with the main stories -- begins in November, 1973, with the "dark promise of an English winter". Dark and wintery, indeed, as the oil crisis was beginning to hit home, and years of economic turmoil (eventually culminating in the election of Margaret Thatcher) began. It is that brief era Coe writes about, and he captures it marvelously. The events of those years are neatly integrated into the novel, those 70s a constant, often very prominent, background.
       Dashed labour (and Labour) hopes figure large, the spectre of the coming Iron Lady looming over the pages. British Leyland is a major employer in the area, and several of the characters work there (in all capacities). British readers know what became of British Leyland, but at the time of the novel decline is merely in the air -- along with hope. Readers know all hope was dashed (though one wonders if American readers even recall British Leyland). Coe is very conscious of what happened after the period that dominates his novel -- just as he knows his readers are well-aware of it too, and come to the novel with that knowledge and experience --, and he uses this very well
       Coe captures the then still-prevalent clash of class well too. There are boys from all classes at King William's (and a prominent black student), and it remains an issue in many facets of their lives (and, more obviously, their parents' lives). Some of the confusion of the times also arises from the shifts that have begun to occur: the changing face of labour, the rise of Thatcherite ideas of meritocracy.
       The terrorist bombings of the time -- the Birmingham pub bombings, in particular -- are effectively used. The National Front, racism, anti-immigration sentiment -- and Eric Clapton's (in)famous statements at a Birmingham concert -- all also play a role. So is the shifting cultural scene, and specifically pop-music, with the rise of punk rock. One of the characters, Douglas Anderton notes years later, in a speech from 1999: "People forget about the 1970s." Coe sets out to recreate the era, to remember "how people reacted".
       "What days those had been, for unfinished stories", Claire (one of the two girls that dominate the lives of the four boys) thinks, and it is specifically unfinished stories that Coe tells -- as, indeed, The Rotters' Club, with its promised but still unavailable sequel, is as a whole.
       The Rotters' Club is much like many of Coe's previous works, in that it interweaves a large number of stories and that the narrative is presented in a variety of forms. There is a great deal of straightforward narrative, but Coe also offers letters, leaflets, articles from the school newspaper, The Bill Board, and diary entries. One of the last sections of the book is a sort of interior-monologue, a single sentence that stretches on for thirty-three pages.
       The different approaches allow Coe to strut some of his best comedic stuff: some of the school-newspaper articles (or, for example, the letters to the editor supposedly written by a parent, Arthur Pusey-Hamilton) are hilarious. Coe is a clever writer, and these different approaches -- as he also jumps between characters, storylines, and times -- make for a broad canvas. He specifically avoids filling in all the blanks for readers -- and he manages to do this in a way that is not too irritating.
       Benjamin Trotter wonders about writing (in what is parenthetically revealed to be an unpublished story, found among his papers in 2002):

But slowly, irresistibly, I can feel it beginning to dissolve into the hazy falsehood of memory. That is why I have written it down, although in doing so I know that all I have achieved is to falsify it differently, more artfully. Does narrative serve any purpose ? I wonder about that.
       Coe, too, wonders about that, and his different artful approaches are both different ways of trying to make narrative meaningful as well as constant reminders to the reader that it is mere invention and must be considered as such.

       There are any number of stories in the book. Four schoolboys are at the centre, but their families and other students also often figure at the fore.
       There are affairs: a serious one between Bill Anderton (Doug's father) and Miriam Newman (the sister of Claire), ill-fated and finally collapsing disastrously. A more humorous one involves Barbara Chase, mother of another of the boys (Philip), and her son's art teacher, Mr. Plumb, who leaves her spellbound with his oratorical mastery. Her husband, Sam, a bus driver, can't compete, and so he systematically sets out to become Plumb's equal, an entertaining process culminating in a marvelous final showdown.
       The loves of the youths are largely not successful, with the peripheral ones winding up worst of all. Miriam's story is one tragedy; another is that of Benjamin's older sister, Lois. The four schoolboys have middling success, though by the end of the book some have found a good measure of happiness. Benjamin, in particular, seems to have successfully grown into the beginnings of adulthood and found a perfect relationship -- but Coe never lets the readers forget that a cloud hangs over him, and though it does not burst here the catastrophe clearly lurks somewhere ahead.
       The title of the novel comes from an album (by Hatfield and the North), but it is also what Benjamin and Lois Trotter consider themselves. As Lois explains to her brother:
Bent Rotter, and Lowest Rotter. We're The Rotters' Club. You and me. Not Paul. Just you and me.
       Paul is the third and youngest Trotter-child, and the darkest figure in the book. Lois and Benjamin are, fatally, of the present, children of these 1970s. Paul is of the future, and his affiliation with The Closed Circle (the title of the sequel to this novel) is no accident: he will be the star of the coming world. The Closed Circle is "a 'think-tank' composed of the finest minds at King William's", and Paul is the youngest member elected to it. "Modernize -- modernize or die" is his ominous rallying cry, arguing that "radical, sometimes brutal measures can be needed" to keep tradition alive.
       Paul is perhaps too simply presented here as Coe lays the foundation for his next novel, but he fits in well enough as a foil of sorts. Still, he is one of the few characters that Coe doesn't seem to treat completely fairly. Almost all the others, the good and the bad, are remarkably well-captured, a great deal conveyed even in the simplest actions or exchanges.

       Coe's book is not always easily approachable. It is very British-centered, the stories seem to spin and intertwine wildly (though the underlying structure is a strong one), there is a vast cast of characters, and there is a sense of incompleteness to the book as Coe repeatedly makes his point that it was a time "for unfinished stories". But it is also a remarkable portrait of the British 1970s, with a great deal of subtle, perfect detail. And there are also some simply hilarious bits.
       Occasionally, Coe does not convince. Ben finding god is something of a disappointment, and Paul isn't entirely satisfactory. But for the most part, Coe does an excellent job.
       The Rotters' Club is good entertainment, and a much deeper novel about a shallow, largely forgotten decade than it initially appears.
       "Does narrative serve any purpose ?" Coe has Ben Trotter wonder. On the evidence presented in the novel -- by the novel -- one feels almost certain: Yes.

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The Rotters' Club: Reviews: The Rotters' Club - the TV mini-series: Jonathan Coe: Other books by Jonathan Coe under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Born in 1961, Jonathan Coe attended Cambridge and Warwick universities. He is the author of several novels.

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