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Landscapes/Cityscapes Situational Identity in British Literature and Visual Arts (20th-21st Centuries)
Cities of the mind

London Doubts: Wellsian Undersides and Undertones in Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 (2015)

Des doutes londoniens : sous-textes et résonances de H. G. Wells dans Number 11 (2015) de Jonathan Coe
Laurent Mellet


Il est étonnant de constater que le dernier roman en date de Coe fasse de si nombreuses allusions aux « romances scientifiques » de H. G. Wells. Cet article se penche sur ce que Number 11 doit aux paysages urbains dystopiques et au Londres souterrain imaginés par Wells dans The Time Machine (1896) et The War of the Worlds (1898). L’autre influence évidente de Wells touche au surnaturel. Cette intertextualité est au cœur de l’écriture de Londres mais aussi de la texture narrative du roman, et ces paysages urbains littéraires permettent de redéfinir l’identité de la fiction contemporaine. Cet article montre que de tels sous-textes et de telles résonances offrent à Coe la possibilité de réinventer sa propre esthétique satirique et d’imaginer de nouvelles modalités politiques du récit, dans lesquelles les doutes et l’anxiété propres à l’époque et à la littérature édouardiennes jouent un rôle important. Y a-t-il alors ici un exemple d’approche et d’écriture « métamodernistes » de l’Angleterre, de ses topographies et de son histoire littéraire ?

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1So far Jonathan Coe’s novels have often been read and studied as a form of satire that bears on the sphere of the intimate and not only the collective, sometimes resting on intertextual plays with Rosamond Lehmann or B. S. Johnson (Mellet 2015), but not with H.G. Wells’s scientific romances or condition-of-England novels. Considering the cityscapes in Coe’s novel Number 11 (2015) reveals a Wellsian hypertextuality which asks for a reappraisal of Coe’s generic options and satirical streak, shedding light on a common fictional approach to situational identity and the politics of literature. In order to unravel the modalities of such an aesthetic inscription of meaningful topographies and their cultural and political programmes, this article examines a surprising set of undersides in the cityscape of the ‘London under’ imagined in Number 11 and influenced by Wells. I would like to show that beyond the generic correspondences linked to satire and the condition-of-England mode, these Wellsian undertones articulate a common politics of fiction which finds its aesthetic and formal expression in a new investigation of cityscapes as a locus of identity as well as textual indeterminacy. To explore the vision of England’s conflicted urban imagination we find in Number 11, I first look at the ways in which the novel recalls the dystopian cityscapes of the ‘London under’ of both The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). The new empty spaces invented by Coe signal a return to the motif of the void already present in his recent fiction, the better to invent a new kind of condition-of-England novel and question the absurdity of the contemporary London cityscape. Wells’s second obvious influence is linked with the supernatural, as indicated by the epigraph from the short story ‘The Door in the Wall’ (1906) chosen by Coe for the section in his novel ‘The Crystal Garden’. In the second section, I suggest that these two Wellsian manifestations cohere into a literary cityscape that redefines the identity of contemporary fiction, allowing for a dystopian and supernatural fictional depiction of various categories of invisible people in London today. The new parallel between the two authors pertains to a political, topographical and situational approach to social invisibility. I then turn to the way Coe reshapes the mode of satire he is now so wary of and experiments with new facets of political metanarrative (Mellet 2016), looking at metatextuality and a common practice of the politics of literature. Eventually, I argue that Coe’s democratic narrative praxis of contradiction and his reflexion on the illusionary nature of free will equally link back to some of Wells’s narrative and topographical characteristics. A further ‘metamodernist’ connection in their respective ‘Londons under’ shows that Edwardian doubts and anxiety have pride of place in Coe’s novel, turning its inconclusive end into another Wellsian motif.

London Under

2Number 11 is a loose sequel to What a Carve up!. In this novel made up of five novellas, Coe imagines a satirical and dystopian fantasy about a very real current craze in London’s wealthiest areas, where the well-to-do property owners are extending their houses by building down, and not up, a first, a second, and here down to an eleventh floor in their basements. While this is the basic plot of the last novella, ‘What a Whopper!’, many landscapes appear on the contrary to be frustratingly based on horizontal, vertical and slanting lines. In ‘The Black Tower’, the two young protagonists are scared because ‘[t]he round tower soared up, black and glistening, against the slate grey of a late-October sky’ (Coe 2015, 3). Then we read: ‘The lawn was in two tiers, each with a slight incline, so the patch of soil from which the tree grew was itself quite high up, almost on a level with the first floor of the house’ (19). With their threatening verticality or enduring horizontality, such landscapes partake of a gloomy atmosphere produced by inefficient or insufficient spatial coordinates. This echoes Peter Ackroyd’s assertion that in many representations of London, ‘[t]he city itself is identified as a series of horizontals, verticals and diagonals with the greatest emphasis upon central London’ (Ackroyd 131), although in Number 11 such a topography is equally characteristic of rural landscapes and not of central London only. In this regard, the novel takes us back to the end of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, where the vertical and horizontal axes are no longer relevant to express the dehumanised contemporary cityscape of England, with a suggestion that the cityscape must also accommodate depth to rekindle the possibility of both representation and intimacy. What is worth noticing is that in its first stages the plot hinges on an indictment of both landscapes and cityscapes in the text’s visual and topographical poetics.

3In the very same way these rich Londoners want to dig deeper and deeper so as to own London under too, in Number 11 many other situations involve going down houses, ‘somewhere in the depths’ (Coe 2015, 54), ‘peering into the shadows at its furthest depths’ (66), or in a comic revisiting of Hitchcock’s Psycho with Mrs Bates shown screaming on her swivelling chair at the end of ‘The Black Tower’ (56). In ‘The Crystal Garden’ too, we go down into cellars full of secrets about Roger and his fatal obsession with a film (146). One of the ways Coe addresses contemporary situational identity in the novel lies in his invention of spaces defined by absence (248). Number 11 is rife with images of voids and gaps, from the ‘dismal hell-hole’ in ‘the unfamiliar cityscape’ (221), to the ‘gaps in the schedule’ (160) on television which in ‘The Crystal Garden’ are a first intimation that Roger’s obsession with a film he saw as a child is based on real memories. In ‘What a Whopper!’ houses themselves are empty and full of holes (235), and Rachel has to overcome her fear of ‘the building site, a mess of mud and temporary planking with a square of tarpaulin laid out at the centre, covering what seemed to be a gigantic hole’ (254). These recurrent holes (257, 284 and 341) trigger the desire or necessity to go down and explore another situational identity, beyond the unproductive horizontal and vertical grids: ‘[Madiana] wished to extend: but the absurd local planning regulations dictated that they could not make the house any taller, nor could they extend it at the rear, into the back garden. The only way to go, in other words, was down’ (256). Rachel’s high-angle perspective down on the pit is another recurring motif (78), this time connecting the novel, and particularly its conclusion, to the end of Coe’s A Touch of Love. This is a further motif linking one novella to the next, and also rehearsed in Rachel climbing up trees in her grandparents’ garden at the beginning and the very end of the book. The void at the bottom of the pit contaminates the narrative of Number 11 in many other ways, for instance when the ‘absence’ resulting from the death of Rachel’s grandfather’s ‘now filled every room, settled everywhere like a film of dust, in a way that his presence never had’ (345), the next three pages being similarly filled with reminiscences couched in a paratactic style, the narrative traces of the character’s absence testifying to his enduring presence for the family but also in the text itself.

4This first side of the London cityscape in Number 11 obviously recalls Wells’s first novel The Time Machine, in which the time traveller recounts: ‘I do not know how long I sat peering down that well’ (Wells 46), and where ‘there was a pit like the “area” of a London house’ (65). In The War of the Worlds, ‘[a]n enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile’ (383), while the short story ‘The Door in the Wall’ unfurls around ‘gap[s]’ in ‘memory’ (560) and ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’ is another famous example of Wells’s symbolic use of vision and gaps (Bergonzi 63). From The Time Machine we will remember the traveller’s initial fascination for the well and its mysterious inhabitants, until he discovers the actual nature of the relationship between the Eloi above and the Morlocks below. In one of his authoritative books on Wells, John Hammond perceives a similar approach to London in the scientific romances and the Edwardian social novels, with an emphasis on ‘uncertainty and confusion, […] London as a symbol of the decline and fall of the Victorian age, […] viewing London from the outside, offering a bird’s eye view of the metropolis’ (Hammond 2001, 92-3). Coe resorts to the very same images of pits and holes, and the same bird’s eye views when Rachel looks down at the garden and the pit from the house. This reads as another Wellsian dystopian motif revisited by Coe, revealing an enduring aspect of the urban imagination of English literature as developed from 1895 to 2015. Coe’s huge vengeful spiders creeping out of the eleventh floor in the basement are a direct reference to the Morlocks in The Time Machine, with their ‘pairs of eyes watching out of the darkness’ (Wells 45): ‘I lit a match, and, looking down, I saw a small, white, moving creature, with large bright eyes which regarded me steadfastly as it retreated. It made me shudder. It was so like a human spider! It was clambering down the wall’ (45). They are also to be read as an allusion to the Martians in The War of the Worlds (391), monsters falling down into the pit (392), and their ‘vast spider-like machines’ (447). In this novel, the narrator finds himself locked up in the hole dug by the fifth cylinder. In Number 11 one of the spiders ‘rushed out from the back of the garden, scuttled towards the edge of the pit and disappeared through the hole in the tarpaulin. […] [I]t dived down into the pit, scrambling down the walls, plunging deeper and deeper into the darkness from which it had come’ (Coe 2015, 312), before ‘pairs of eyes’ (342) stare back at Rachel.

‘The Door in the Wall’: Wellsian Undersides

5In ‘The Crystal Garden’, the third novella, Roger is obsessed with, or rather haunted by, the memory of a film he is positive he saw as a child. He will meet his death precisely when finding evidence of the existence of the film (174). Wells’s short story ‘The Door in the Wall’ also concludes on Wallace’s death after he has found again and passed through that green door in the white wall which opened onto a magical garden, or so he thought as a child. Roger’s fate in Number 11 clearly relates to the short story: ‘Then very haltingly at first, but afterwards more easily, he began to tell of the thing that was hidden in his life, the haunting memory of a beauty and a happiness that filled his heart with insatiable longings’ (Wells 556); ‘The thing whacked upon me suddenly. Then, after all, that garden, that wonderful garden, wasn’t a dream!’ (563). As in his novel The Invisible Man and another well-known short story, ‘The Crystal Egg’ (‘And one day, turning the crystal about in his hands, he saw something. It came and went like a flash, but it gave him the impression that the object had for a moment opened to him the view of a wide and spacious and strange country’ [657]), Wells here questions the porous opposition between science and imagination, rationalism and the arts.

6There are many other correspondences between ‘The Door in the Wall’ and the novella ‘The Crystal Garden’ in Number 11. The epigraph to the latter is an extract from the former: ‘The fact is—it isn’t a case of ghost or apparitions—but—it’s an odd thing to tell of, Redmond—I am haunted. I am haunted by something—that rather takes the light out of things, that fills me with longings…’ (Coe 2015, 127). Roger’s own cinematic magical garden, his obsession with it and the themes of haunting and frustration (156) clearly recall ‘The Door in the Wall’. Another symptom of Wells’s influence here pertains to doubt, imagination and the supernatural. The first novella is a parody of the Gothic and of its haunting ghosts; Rachel (her full name is Rachel Wells), who features in all five novellas, keeps alluding to her imagination and the tricks it plays on her: ‘It poisons my mind once again with strange imaginings’ (66); ‘And that’s when my imagination takes over (it is only my imagination, I have to cling to that thought)’ (14). She mentions the short story at the end, wondering how one could possibly not take to such a tale: ‘How could they fail to be moved, she thought, by this tale of a young boy who, at the age of five, finds a door in the wall of an ordinary London street, and discovers that it leads to a magical garden: a door he will never be able to locate again, a garden he will never revisit, despite a lifetime of efforts and longings?’ (271). And there is such a ‘magic door’ between her own quarters and the house itself, ‘like a big mirror’, ‘like Orphée in Cocteau’s film’ (264)— another recurring allusion in Coe’s works. All these doors in walls, these magic and crystal gardens, along with the spiders down in the pits all pertain to the Wellsian background of Coe’s novel, which is a pivotal element to understand the cultural and literary meanings of its cityscape.

7Central to this influence is the desire to provide those invisible in London today with a new literary identity. Neither the gaps nor the spiders lead so much to science-fiction or horror as link back to Wells’s examination of invisible forms of life and their political undersides. Social invisibility was already clearly at stake in Wells’s imagined London under. Many types and classes are invisible in Number 11: the Chinese refugee in the opening novella (66), or the ‘“invisible people” in the new age of austerity’ (293) studied by a young man in his thesis on Wells’s The Invisible Man (293). Yet as Rachel tells him, he ‘shouldn’t just be writing about poor people. The rich can make themselves invisible too’ (293). Here is of course one of the main logical and topographical threads in the novel: the rich are digging down to extend their houses to become yet more invisible and safer, ironically going down to their own extinction by eventually setting free these egalitarian spiders that will bring the Winshaws’s downfall, their offspring’s and their kind’s—or so Rachel imagines. As noticed by Ackroyd: ‘The fantasy of the underworld as a place of safety goes very deep’ (Ackroyd 176). One source surely is Wells’s The War of the Worlds and the artilleryman’s famous wish to live underground: ‘You see, how I mean to live is underground. I’ve been thinking about the drains. Of course, those who don’t know drains think horrible things; but under this London are miles and miles—hundreds of miles—and a few days’ rain and London empty will leave them sweet and clean’ (Wells 527). On this point the novel draws many other connections with Wells, for instance when Rachel explains that this PhD student is ‘using invisibility as a metaphor to talk about politics’ (276), before one of the spiders’ future victims sarcastically remarks: ‘Sounds as though he’s spotted a real gap in the market there’ (276). When Rachel hastens to take leave, the narrator implies another correlation between invisibility and the social agenda of the cityscape: ‘then she said thank you and goodbye to Jules before stepping out into the crowds of tourists clogging up Shaftesbury Avenue; relieved to find herself surrounded, once again, by people she felt she could probably understand’ (276). Alison also explains that she had ‘been doing a lot of portraits of homeless people, getting them in off the streets and painting them as if they were princes or emperors. A sort of parody of the kind of art that celebrates power and which never gets called “political” even though it obviously is’ (307).

8Coe weaves some of his strongest convictions into a fictional pattern which resonates with a current strain in both contemporary literature and philosophy, to wit, a focus on the invisible members of our societies and the desire to provide them with new representations and new voices thanks to fiction. In Number 11, Coe imagines artistic productions (Alison’s portraits) and academic work (Jamie’s thesis) on one of the most salient influences of contemporary thinking on his writing, as instantiated in the books by Jacques Rancière, but also Cynthia Fleury (Fleury 14) or Pierre Rosanvallon. In Le Parlement des invisibles, Rosanvallon writes: ‘Donner la parole, rendre visible, c’est en effet aider des individus à se mobiliser, à résister à l’ordre existant et à mieux conduire leur existence. C’est aussi leur permettre de rassembler leur vie dans un récit qui fait sens, de s’insérer dans une histoire collective’ (Rosanvallon 23). This also recalls Coe’s conviction that the political can be found within the most intimate structures, and his wish to experiment with this in his fiction:

The family, I suppose, is one of the smallest political units you can analyse. (The only one smaller, really, is the couple. And for some reason I have never written a novel based purely upon the power relations within one couple: maybe there’s an idea for the future…) […] It seems to me that it would be an odd writer who took a political theme and then sided with the more powerful of his characters, rather than with those who are weak and vulnerable. And nobody is more vulnerable than the child who is growing up within a family and is absolutely incapable of exercising any choice in questions like, for instance, where she is going to live or who is going to bring her up. So I’ve become interested in children as fictional characters because they offer an extreme instance of powerlessness. (Coe 2013a, 4446)

9In the very same way this return to Wells helps Coe find new narrative political directions and question the role of contemporary fiction, exploring London under means redefining London above and today’s cityscape. In Ackroyd’s terms: ‘Like the nerves within the human body, the underworld controls the life of the surface’ (Ackroyd 2). Ackroyd then works on the correlations between the space we inhabit and our ‘behaviour and attitude’ (9), our situational identity. In this regard, according to John Hammond, ‘Wells’s approach has a dual perspective; we see London as a framework, a backcloth to the narrative, and as an organism composed of individuals’ (Hammond 2001, 93). Malcolm Bradbury observes that Wells ‘virtually invented science fiction in its modern form’ precisely by grounding its political and prophetic outlooks in topographical explorations (Bradbury 60). This is also something that Coe engages in, be it with his evocation of psychogeography and its leading figures (‘he drew on the modish discipline of psychogeography [as pioneered by Guy Debord, and practised in the present day by the likes of Patrick Keiller, Iain Sinclair and Will Self]’ [Coe 2015, 184]), or when one of his narrators claims that Britain was ‘a different place, unquiet, haunted’ (17) after politician David Kelly’s death: places show and tell the collective identity of a country as much as they are reshaped by history and individual fates. Though Coe gently mocks psychogeography here and cannot be said to experiment with its modalities of questioning the links between places, dérive and identity, by mentioning it Coe incorporates its formal and political agenda into his own approach to contemporary London. Similarly, by culturally inscribing and questioning these places in language, literature also reinvents itself as a locus of identity.

Satirical Undertones

10These Wellsian undersides also lead to a renewal of the modes of satire in Coe’s fiction. Coe resorts to horror and excess, in the wake of his concluding chapters in What a Carve up!, this time with a view to manipulating both his revengeful monsters and literature itself, which may be construed as intellectual criminal investigation. Wells’s monsters were of course endowed with political and satirical meanings, most famously so in The Time Machine, where tentative explanation soon morphs into theorisation not devoid of ironic distance (Wells 32; see Hammond 2001, 103-104). Wells’s traveller shifts from the utopian to the dystopian mode when commenting on the political and social evolutions of this world, or when theorising on the underworld (47). To Peter Ackroyd, if ‘certain creatures roam the underworld’ (Ackroyd 10), they are also figures of power (3). Hence also perhaps the desire within the upper classes to ‘go down’, as we saw, and extend both their houses and their topographical domination, a topic that Ackroyd raises at the end of his book:

if London continues to grow, taking up all available space, it may in some remote future be obliged as a last resort to go under the ground. […] That subterranean city exists even now. […] The fantasy only precedes the reality. In certain areas of London, where space is expensive, many owners of properties are already digging down and creating large subterranean spaces for a variety of uses. Some houses have been extended four storeys beneath the earth. (179-180)

11Though the eleventh floor in the basement in Coe’s novel is obviously satirical, it also reads as another Wellsian allusion, particularly to the ironically wrong interpretation by the traveller in The Time Machine of the world of the Haves above ground and that of the Have-nots below ground (Wells 48). Coe revisits this distribution and implies that the Haves are still conquering London under too, in a satirical validation of Wells’s prophecy. Number 11 furthermore teems with satirical elements: the Winshaw prize is awarded to the best prize in the UK (Coe 2015, 212), Josephine Winshaw-Eaves eventually finds ‘a black one-legged lesbian on benefits’ (195) to write about and win her father’s respect, Sir Gilbert wants Rachel ‘to turn [his] son into a normal person’ (244), and of course one wants an eleventh floor in one’s basement merely because one can afford it (288).

12Satire is also thematised in Number 11 and its novella ‘The Winshaw Prize’, where Coe invents a blogger and murderer, ChristieMalry2 (an open allusion to B. S. Johnson), to voice his own doubts about satire that he had already theorised in his essay ‘The Paradox of Satire’:

When we write satire, therefore, we may try to believe that we are doing something that will disrupt the established order: we may try to believe that when they read our words, our political (and personal) enemies will shake in their boots, retreat into a corner to re-examine their own system of values, and emerge as reformed characters; but, in reality, this will never happen. Satire does not work that way. Instead, it brings about the very opposite of what the author was intending. It creates a space—a warm, safe, welcoming space—in which like-minded readers can gather together and share in comfortable laughter. (Coe 2013a, 3452)

In Number 11, Coe voices the very same ideas through ChristieMalry2:

political humour is the very opposite of political action. Not just its opposite, but its mortal enemy. […] The ANGER which we should feel towards these people, which might otherwise lead to ACTION, is released and dissipated in the form of LAUGHTER. […] Down with comedy, for fuck’s sake! And on with the real struggle! (Coe 2015, 205-206)

13In the novella, these doubts also add a metafictional streak to the whole novel. To PC Pilbeam, the young officer who enjoys theorising about his own practice and who will solve the case: ‘The criminal does not act in a political vacuum. To understand motive, one must understand what motivates: […] landscape and cityscape, the politics of identity and the politics of party. To solve an English crime, committed by an English criminal, one must contemplate the condition of England itself’ (185). How not read here a rewriting of Salman Rushdie’s famous words in ‘Outside the Whale’: ‘works of art, even works of entertainment, do not come into being in a social and political vacuum; and […] the way they operate in a society cannot be separated from politics, from history’ (Rushdie 92)? Intellectual criminal investigation, central as it is to the plot of the novella, is therefore but a satirical distortion of literature itself, or rather, of literary studies (Coe 2015, 202 and 229). Confronting the condition of England itself will help understand the crime and eventually arrest the culprit, in the same way as understanding politics and history will help studying and interpreting art. Or, to return to Wells, in the same way as science will help understand, for instance, ‘The Crystal Egg’, which is the title of another of his short stories (Wells 659). Such a metafictional theorising drive is a major stylistic component of Wells’s works. According to Anne B. Simpson: ‘Frequently Wells’s protagonists are little more than voices doing battle with theories, and the people in their orbits are often simply projections of the principle figures’ obsessions’ (Simpson 69). Beyond the derogatory tone characteristic of critical feuds and beyond the implied indictment of the novels’ poor quality, it is undeniable that Wells’s books also resort to metafiction and a tentative formal experimentation so as to invent a new streak of condition-of-England fiction, but also a different satirical vein. Another cultural vacuum is equally denied here, the topographical one: neither Wells’s dystopian cityscapes, imaginary monsters and social novels, nor Coe’s London under, farcical spiders and political novels, can be understood without considering the conditions of England they stem from and ‘operate in’, in Rushdie’s words. This is also how Coe’s novel activates metafiction in a Wellsian fashion to reinvent social satire and perform what is now referred to as the politics of literature (Attridge):

Cette distribution et cette redistribution des espaces et des temps, des places et des identités, de la parole et du bruit, du visible et de l’invisible forment ce que j’appelle le partage du sensible. L’activité politique reconfigure le partage du sensible. Elle introduit sur la scène du commun des objets et des sujets nouveaux. Elle rend visible ce qui était invisible, elle rend audibles comme être parlants ceux qui n’étaient entendus que comme animaux bruyants. L’expression ‘politique de la littérature’ implique donc que la littérature intervient en tant que littérature dans ce découpage des espaces et des temps, du visible et de l’invisible, de la parole et du bruit. Elle intervient dans ce rapport entre des pratiques, des formes de visibilité et des modes du dire qui découpe un ou des mondes communs. (Rancière 2007a, 11)

14To Rancière, this is how art can fulfil a political agenda, precisely by taking up the question of social invisibility, inscribing it into its ethical telos and questioning it through its own formal experimentation. Coe’s updating of many of Wells’s literary and political commitments reads as a cogent case of such politics of literature, turning the medium into a visual and linguistic political agent: ‘La politique est d’abord une intervention sur le visible et l’énonçable’ (Rancière 2007b, 241). This also accounts for Coe’s sarcastic and comic discarding of theory itself and of the political role of fiction in Number 11, since to intervene in such a way, commitment or mere representation must be avoided:

L’art n’est pas politique d’abord par les messages et les sentiments qu’il transmet sur l’ordre du monde. Il n’est pas politique non plus par la manière dont il représente les structures de la société, les conflits ou les identités des groupes sociaux. Il est politique par l’écart même qu’il prend par rapport à ces fonctions, par le type de temps et d’espace qu’il institue, par la manière dont il découpe ce temps et peuple cet espace. […] [L]e propre de l’art est d’opérer un redécoupage de l’espace matériel et symbolique. Et c’est par là que l’art touche à la politique. (Rancière 2004, 36-37)

15The haunted spaces in Wells’s and Coe’s imagined London under become examples of the way space can be redistributed and thought anew to figure the political and democratic programme of fiction.

London Doubts: ‘In the end, I believe, we are all free to choose’ (Coe 2015, 351)

16What Number 11 also evinces is the evolution in Coe’s works from political satire to a more open coexistence of contradictions, between which any choice or no choice is to be made. Very often Coe’s writing does not choose between alternative genres and narrative strategies. The novels shape a multiplicity of paths to be taken and imagine a resisting aesthetic of reconciliation and cohabitation (Mellet 2015, 140). They set up the possibility for one thing and its opposite to coexist and connect so as to define characters but also the novelist’s ethical approach to the notion. There lies Coe’s undoubtedly most characteristic narrative political edge, implying characters and text open themselves to uncertainty and that a democratic requisite of the construction of contemporary cultural identity lies in the refusal of consensus and the stylistic celebration of difference. In Number 11 characters are regularly left ‘with two options’, but: ‘It was no choice at all, in fact’ (Coe 2015, 9). ‘Indecision paralyse[s]’ (10) them, while the very possibility of choice is no longer valid. Wondering whether she actually sees or merely imagines these spiders in the garden, Rachel writes: ‘The paradox is this: I have to assume, for the sake of my sanity, that I am going mad. Because what’s the alternative? […] In other words, I’m trapped. Trapped between two choices, two paths, both of which lead to insanity’ (14 and 319). While choice and free will are two of the concepts on which the neoliberal ideology propounded by the Winshaws is grounded (135), they also take us back to Roger’s lethal obsession with the film from his childhood. In ‘The Crystal Garden’, his wife says: ‘He hated choice. […] Other people were making choices for him. People he trusted. He loved that. He loved the idea of trusting people to make decisions on his behalf’ (176). Later she adds: ‘I know what Roger would have thought about that […]. You don’t bother to watch these great old films because you have too much choice. In the old days you would have watched them because there was nothing else on the television and nothing else to do’ (264). The experience might be intimate, but it dramatizes Coe’s consistent defence of the political imperative of ‘not choosing’. Eventually, in Roger’s case, choosing to know the truth was a fatal decision.

17In Number 11, London is the city of contradictions: ‘this part of London was defined by its extremes of silence and noise’ (293). This recalls Zadie Smith’s London in On Beauty: ‘that changeable North London hill, which ends in ignominy with Cricklewood Broadway. At various points along this hill, areas are known to fall in and out of gentrification, but the two extremes of Hampstead and Cricklewood do not change’ (Smith 2005, 291). This other aesthetic and political pattern also links back to Wells’s short story ‘The Door in the Wall’, in which many ‘conflicts’ (Wells 561) are never resolved but stated as such and as fruitful combinations of alternative possibilities. The open conclusion of the story does not choose between imagination and actual danger, between magic and death, and the various meanings of the door itself and its magical garden—as with the crystal garden in Number 11:

‘Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all? I do not know. I have told his story as he told it to me. […] We see our world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit. By our daylight standard he walked out of security into darkness, danger, and death. But did he see like that?’ (571)

18We know this story epitomises Wells’s double interest in and refusal to choose between art and science, imagination and politics (Bergonzi 88). This is another oscillation that Coe makes his here, constantly referring to the tricks imagination plays on the vulnerable onlooker in London, in another echo of Wells’s game with vision in ‘The Crystal Egg’: ‘It was a moving picture: that is to say, certain objects moved in it, but slowly in an orderly manner like real things, and, according as the direction of the lighting and vision changed, the picture changed also’ (Wells 657). Beyond the holes in the cityscapes and their hidden monsters, what Coe revisits from these short stories, in which we are provided with two explanations between which no choice can possibly be made (661), is this unbridgeable dichotomy between extreme poles, in an attempt to renew himself and invent forms for his democratic narrative praxis of contradictions and indeterminacy.

19To Hammond, Wells ‘is an interesting example of a writer who was divided against himself. A scientist by training, he was an artist by intuition; […] embod[ying] a contradiction between intellect and emotion which fractures all his work’ (Hammond 2001, 147). This crops up again and again in Wellsian criticism, usually only to observe that the novelist, his characters and his works are ‘torn between’ two contradictory paths, yet never suggesting that these alternatives might have been one of the main generic and stylistic interests of his writings: ‘All his life Wells was torn between classical and romantic drives—between the world of reason and science, and the world of romance and emotion’ (180). My contention is that Coe revisits but also actualises these ambiguities, probing into the role of ‘the anxiety of influence’ as dramatized in contemporary literaryscapes and probing into the basic ambivalences of London under: danger and safety, attraction and fear, dirt and beauty, magic and terror. In Ackroyd’s terms: ‘If the underworld can be understood as a place of fear and of danger, it can also be regarded as a place of safety. A subterranean space may be the object of attraction as well as of fear’ (3; see also 182). The last words of Number 11 are: ‘In the end, I believe, we are all free to choose’ (Coe 2015, 351). Despite the apparently naïve epigrammatic tone, Livia’s sentence is bitterly ironic, since at the end of Number 11, we are free only to doubt but never able to choose, locked up in textual and ethical anxieties.

20This contemporary literary concern in fin-de-siècle and Edwardian scepticism, which, as we know, was in no way a mere transition to modernism, but in itself a modern phase in the history of British literature, reads as an evolution reminiscent of what Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker develop in their current work on metamodernism. They claim: ‘If the modern thus expresses itself by way of a utopic syntaxis, and the postmodern expresses itself by means of a dystopic parataxis, the metamodern, it appears, exposes itself through a-topic metaxis’ (Vermeulen and van den Akker 12). According to them, the metaxis, the in-between, the middle ground, is one of the modes in which contemporary arts and culture can renegotiate their cultural inscription of today’s spacetimes, landscapes and cityscapes. While some Wells scholars contend that the omnipresence of doubt in the novelist’s works almost turns him into a postmodernist artist (Caldwell 130), I would argue that the way Coe revisits him throws light on such generic and aesthetic in-betweenness, which precisely reactivates the modes and meanings of places and topoi in British fiction and even their very possibility (‘a-topic’, a place that is no place, ‘an intentional being out of place’ [Vermeulen and van den Akker 12]). This approach throws light on the topographical modalities of ambivalence, on doubt and the inaccuracy of choice, reactivating the political and generic features of Wells’s legacy. Combined with the other meaning of ‘meta’, for instance in Patrick Parrinder’s work on Wells’s meta-utopia and meta-dystopia in his study Shadows of the Future (Parrinder 98), or in the original metafictional streak of Number 11 (novelists, readers and scholars as private investigators who must take into account the political and cultural backgrounds to fiction), this metamodernist take on contemporary Wellsian undersides and ‘Londons under’ addresses situational identity in British literature by looking at its interconnected relations both to space and its own history.

21Wells’s scientific romances are rife with epistemological and narrative doubts. Hammond writes that in his ‘“fantasias of possibility” […] he explored the potentialities of science for good and evil’ (Hammond 2001, 103). The traveller in The Time Machine repeatedly casts doubts on his own interpretations, with sentences such as ‘My explanation may be absolutely wrong. I still think it is the most plausible one’ (Wells 49). ‘[O]ppressed with perplexity and doubt’ (50), he offers plausibility as both a scientific and narrative alternative to truth and empirical evidence, to the point of turning his adventures into a tale and a story indeed: ‘No. I cannot expect you to believe me. Take it as a lie—or a prophecy. […] And taking it as a story, what do you think of it?’ (86). As for the narrator’s first sentence in the epilogue, ‘[o]ne cannot choose but wonder’ (90), it heralds the last one in Number 11 but also explains why, precisely, we are not so ‘free to choose’: we simply do not know and cannot even choose to know. According to Hammond: ‘Because he is fallible and subject to moods of disgust and self-doubt the reader identifies with [the traveller] in his plight, sharing in his adventures and his attempts to understand the world around him’ (Hammond 2001, 176). The first words of The War of the Worlds are: ‘no one would have believed’ the existence of the Martians (Wells 377). The narrator’s mind is ‘blank wonder’ (402) and the epilogue once more lays emphasis on ‘an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity’ (548). Scepticism is a science-fiction trope, for instance prominent in The Invisible Man (269), but also a Nietzschean token of the fin-de-siècle and Edwardian Zeitgeist. In his sincere attempt to decipher modernist features in Wells’s thinking and, sometimes, writing, Hammond may sometimes be going too fast and overlooking the Edwardian significance of unresolved doubts in the author’s condition-of-England novels but also scientific romances (Hammond 2001, 182; see also Hammond 1988). Anne B. Simpson has illuminating pages on this Edwardian aspect, paving the way for further research on Wells and other Edwardian and modernist authors examining their liberal and/or democratic narrative approach to such scepticism.

22‘[A]ll Wells’s novels have an ambiguous ending’ (Hammond 2001, 194), so have the short stories, ‘The Crystal Garden’, which refuses to choose between facts and imagination (Wells 666), and ‘The Door in the Wall’, with a final paragraph on the way this story defies knowledge of both the meaning of the door itself and the other protagonists’ perspectives (571). ‘The Door in the Wall’ is all about ‘intervening doubts’ (555): ‘I cannot pretend to guess. Even the facts of [Wallace’s] death, which ended my doubts for ever, throw no light on that. That much the reader must judge for himself’ (555). We find here yet another major influence of the story on Number 11, where the giant spiders seem to be born out of Rachel’s imagination (Coe 2015, 14), itself influenced by the playing cards and the repulsive spiders drawn on them that have haunted her since childhood (the very same way Roger might have imagined that the ‘pictures’ on ‘the pages of that book’ could come alive in ‘The Door in the Wall’ [561]). Here too we are beyond choice: the drawn spiders are ‘grotesque’ and ‘cartoonish’ and ‘far too realistic’ (Coe 2015, 30). The novel sometimes hints at the fact that only Rachel can see the spiders (343), while the last two pages, narrated by Livia, turn the Romanian young woman into a Dracula-like figure as some sort of queen of the spiders, becoming one of them herself, her amber eyes (351) being a characteristic of the spiders too. The political revenge is channelled through the absurd and a final reference to Wells in this inconclusive ending. Ultimately, I would argue that though readers are free to choose between real and fantasised spiders, between the comic and the absurd, between satire and scientific or comic romance, the choice simply cannot and should not be made. The alternative remains the only valid narrative mode, as implied by metamodernism and its emphasis on metaxis—an alternative in the French meaning of the word, the statement of a choice which need not be made. Similarly, urban spaces become mere atopic fictional reservoirs for imagination and the questioning of identity when articulated in linguistic and literary terms. In the last pages of his novel, Coe plays with an apparent return to rationalism and chronology. Rachel’s grandmother’s memories of her husband are listed in the text in careful chronological order, yet without any sign of narrative logic opening an elaboration of loss and thus a possibility to mourn, a trick that also reminds us of the conclusion of Coe’s previous novel, Expo 58 (347). What Coe’s narrator does here is follow Laura’s advice to Rachel: ‘Laura told me, as well, that it was very important to be organized when you write. That you should start at the beginning and tell everything in sequence’ (15 and 320). Yet in spite of such sequencing of the narrative, Number 11 seems to abide by the rules of logic and chronology, the better to make us doubt and become unable to choose between rationalism and mad illusions, in a manner reminiscent of Wells. This last form of ambivalence reads as a textual but also political and democratic sign of the way Coe’s cityscapes and London under are inflected by the necessity of formal and ethical commitment. The various modalities in which Coe represents or reinvents London (haunted voids, invisible monsters, supernatural tones, satire, deceptive choices and scepticism) cohere into an innovative definition of contemporary British fiction, the singularity of which stems from a multifaceted Wellsian legacy. By revisiting the condition-of-England novel, Coe carves out new representational spaces for the invisible members of society and experiments with a metamodernist take on literature and its political agenda, contributing to the current questioning of situational identity but also turning fiction itself into one of the sites from which new identities might emerge.

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Laurent Mellet, « London Doubts: Wellsian Undersides and Undertones in Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 (2015) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 20 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Mellet

Laurent Mellet is Professor of British literature and film at the University Toulouse Jean Jaurès (CAS-EA 801). His research fields are modernist and contemporary British fiction, film studies and adaptation. His work focuses on the ethics of form and partakes of a political criticism of aesthetics. He is the co-author with Shannon Wells-Lassagne of Étudier l’adaptation filmique. Cinéma anglais - cinéma américain (PUR, 2010), the author of L’Œil et la voix dans les romans de E. M. Forster et leur adaptation cinématographique (PULM, 2012), of Jonathan Coe. Les politiques de l’intime (PUPS, 2015), and of Atonement (Ian McEwan, Joe Wright): ‘The attempt was all’ (Belin, 2017). He is the co-editor with Sophie Aymes of In and Out. Eccentricity in Britain (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012) and with Elsa Cavalié of Only Connect. E. M. Forster’s Legacies in British Fiction (Peter Lang, 2017). He is the head of the research group ARTLab (CAS - EA 801) and the co-director of the research programme ‘Constructing the individual and the collective’.

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