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Jonathan Coe is generally regarded as a classic modern author and The Rotters' Club (2001) was his breakthrough novel. As an Everyman Prize-winning, satirical novel on British culture, it has become a well studied staple of mainstream literature.
Satire is a well known literary genre. Classics of the genre range from Voltaire's Candide (1759) to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Jonathan Coe’s works of fiction fit squarely into this category. Usually, satirical works poke fun at political and societal realities by using wit, extremes of circumstance, and irony to create awareness of potential dangers or even irrationality.
The Rotters' Club is Jonathan Coe’s sixth novel. It is part of the The Rotters' Club Trilogy (2001-2018), which includes two other novels, The Closed Circle (2004), and Middle England (2018). The Rotter's Club won the Everyman Wodehouse prize in the year it was published. It is a satirical coming-of-age novel set in 1970s Birmingham. The plot follows the lives of four teenage friends who are struggling with the usual growing pains as well as the turbulent political and social climate of the time. Ben Trotter is the protagonist who attends the same school, King Edward, that Coe attended himself.
The novel has been criticised for placing adolescent angst on the same platform as major political or societal change issues like political warfare and class struggles.1 Other critics have been more positive, seeing the novel as focused more on the coming-of-age aspect, with the personal set against a backdrop of broader issues. Rather than trying to address the larger issues, these are treated as having impacted the teenagers and their lives without being the main theme.
Jonathan Coe's genial, likable 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. As always with Jonathan Coe, the sheer intelligent good nature that suffuses his work makes it a pleasure to read. 2
What do you think? Are more personal concerns like how to navigate becoming an adult not related to societal level issues? Are the larger issues more important to address in this novel? Why?
While the novel is usually viewed as political satire, it is also a coming-of-age novel. The larger issues are often left relatively unaddressed when compared to the richness of the personal level plot. The Rotter’s Club belongs to a subgenre called Bildungsroman3, but omits the final element of resolution or the maturity phase, which is only really handled in the sequel, The Closed Circle (2004).
Coming-of-age novels detail the experiences of protagonists who are teenagers approaching adulthood. Some famous examples include J.D Salingers' Catcher in The Rye (1951) and Sylia Plath's The Bell Jar (1964).
The Rotters’ Club’s protagonist Ben Trotter navigates being a teenager in 1970s Birmingham. He and his friends Doug Anderton and Philip Chase all attend the same grammar school, King Edward's, and face similar concerns around life as English teenagers. The fourth focal character, Claire Newman, is Ben’s only female friend.
The novel follows the lives of the four main characters as they navigate music, young love, school, parents, and prefects within the broader landscape of Birmingham’s political, socio-economic, and racial realities.
The Rotters' Club ends with a sentence that is 13,955 words long. This is longer than Molly's soliloquy in Ulysses (1920), which was previously the longest sentence in a novel.
The narration is third person and starts in 2003, with a meeting of two friends, Sophie and Patrick in Berlin. Sophie begins by telling the story to Patrick. Throughout the novel's narrative, insets are used and the narration shifts perspectives and jumps around in a nonlinear way.
Narrative Inset: This is essentially a story-within-a-story, where a character in the original narrative becomes a narrator in a subsequent story or sub narrative.
Ben is the star pupil of his year, a musician who plans to become a novelist. Early on in the novel, he experiences an existential crisis when an IRA bombing affects his own family. He begins to doubt humanity. The second half of the novel deals with his turbulent journey towards a deeper understanding of different perspectives through encounters on his Danish holiday, and with Ceciley’s Welsh uncle. Throughout the novel, he remains in love with Ceciley Boyd, who is the most beautiful girl at a neighbouring school. His nickname is Bent Rotter.
Doug is navigating his parent’s divorce after his mother leaves his father for having an affair with a younger woman. Although morally ambiguous, Doug is portrayed as quite binary in his opinions, which are often strident. He plans on becoming a writer and attempts to introduce Socialist ideas to his mostly middle class friends and classmates at King Edward's.
Philip is Ben’s best friend. He is also a musician but is more into Progressive Rock. He tries to create a band with the niche and slightly ridiculous name 'Gandalf’s Pikestaff'. It isn’t very successful.
Claire is the only main character who does not attend Kind Edward's. She is characterised by her vehement dislike for religion, particularly Christianity. This is partly a reaction against having religion forced on her and her sibling by her father, whom she dislikes.
Let's consider some of the themes Coe looked at in this book.
A key theme is the trials and tribulations of adolescence and how community and larger societal issues play out with the interpersonal experiences of the teenage characters. Their parents’ actions and beliefs influence their decisions and views, as does the community and country that they live in. The struggle to balance things like understanding the broader themes with what band to like, and life as a teenager, is a key element of the novel. Simpler things like music are depicted as a refuge from the complexity of the wider world and a metaphor for social change.
Music always made sense. The music he heard that night was lucid, knowable, full of intelligence and humour, wistfulness and energy, and hope. He would never understand the world, but he would always love this music. - Narrator
English punk band, The Rotters, named themselves after Jonathan Coe's novel, The Rotters' Club. Formed through the The White Heat Club, they were more for fun than they were about serious musicianship.
Class, politics, and racism are all broader issues that affect the day-to-day lives of the characters.
They attend a grammar school, which sits in the middle ground between elitism (entrance exams) and egalitarianism (funded). Most of the students are middle class, but this is not the reality of many other residents of Birmingham.
The wider issue of terrorism, and the after effects of bombings personally affect Ben. This tension creates a pivotal area of personal conflict for him that is only partially resolved in this novel. In addition, the role of socialism in 1970s England is a key wider issue addressed throughout the novel.
Race relations was an aspect of 1970s Birmingham life that is dealt with in a few ways in this novel. An example is a conversation between the three teenage boys about racism in Lord Of The Rings. There is also the story of Andrew, a classmate who experiences racism-related bullying, yet doesn’t get much support.
1. Peter Bradshaw, 'Boys Will be Boys,' The Guardian (2001).
2. Adam Mars-Jones, 'School's Out,' The Guardian (2001).
3. Francesco Di Bernardo, Politics, History and Personal Tragedies: The novels of Jonathan Coe in the British historical, political and literary context from the seventies to recent years (University of Sussex, 2014).
Yes. The Rotters' Club (2001) is the first novel in a trilogy that includes The Closed Circle (2004) and Middle England (2018).
The Rotters' Club was a group of teenage friends in Birmingham in the 1970s. Ben Trotter, the novel's protagonist was nicknamed Bent Rotter, hence The Rotters Club.
The longest sentence in The Rotters' Club is 13,955 words long. This is longer than Molly's soliloquy in Ulysses (1920).
The Rotters Club starts off being narrated by Sophie but includes many narrative insets, so there are many narrators.
Yes, What a Carve Up is 512 pages long. The Rotters' Club is 415 pages long.
Is The Rotters' Club part of a trilogy?
Yes, the trilogy contains The Rotters' Club (2001), A Closed Circle (2004) and Middle England (2018).
What genre is The Rotters' Club?
Who is the protagonist in The Rotter's Club?
What musical genres do the Rotters like to listen to?
Who is the only female friend in The Rotters' Club?
Who is the friend who starts a Prog Rock band?
Doug Anderton starts a band named after Gandalf from Lord of The Rings.
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