Saturday, February 11, 2012
Audioreview: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim
4.5 Stars - Highly Recommended to readers who don't let a little switcheroo at the end ruin the whole kit and kaboodle
10 cd's (approx 11 hrs)
Who says a book about a severely depressed main character can't be funny? Jonathan Coe's The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim will make you laugh out loud at the most inappropriate moments! Of course, I cant speak for the print version, since I listened to this on cd in my car during my commutes to and from work, but AudioGo's narrator Colin Buchanan had me in stitches more than a few times with his impeccable timing, cheeky sarcasm, and undisguised naivety.
The story, if you look at it strictly from a plot standpoint, is really quite sad: Maxwell Sim had an incredibly difficult time coping with the fact that his wife and daughter up and left him. Taking leave from his job at the department store, he fell into a horribly deep depression. 6 months later, he gets an email notification that his ex-wife bought him a plane ticket to visit his estranged father out in Australia. So he goes.
On the final day of his visit, while eating alone at a local diner, Maxwell notices a Chinese lady and her daughter playing cards at a table across the terrace and is suddenly painfully envious of their relationship. As he boards the plane home, acutely aware of the feelings that this woman and her daughter ignited within him, he desperately needs to talk to someone. It's been so long since he's had an actual conversation ... and he's itching to unburden himself of the past 6 months of loneliness. And when a man takes the seat beside him, as the plane begins to taxi, that is exactly what Maxwell does. He talks non-stop for a good portion of the flight to Charlie, his seat-mate, unburdening himself of all of his fears and fantasies and of the horrible divorce and the depression he's suffered. It all comes pouring out of him, and he feels such a sense of relief... until the stewardess interrupts his soliloquy to inform him that Charlie, the man to which he has been spilling his guts to, appears to have taken a heart attack and died beside him.
And this, my friends, begins the incredibly amazing, sometimes hilarious, slightly unreal story of Maxwell Sim. A man who, suddenly manic with a panic to talk, falls head over heels in love with every woman he comes into contact with - the young junior adultery facilitator (whose name escapes me) he strikes up conversation with in the airport cafe during a layover on his trip home; Lindsay, the creative half behind the toothbrush company he decides he travel to the Shetland Islands for in order to help his buddy's business take off; and most pathetically, "Emma", his trusty, non judgmental GPS system. Oh yes, you heard me. He falls in love with his GPS system's voice. A tragic, hopeless romantic who hasn't quite discovered how to completely pull himself out of his depressive cycle of self-loathing, Maxwell proves to be one of the most sympathetic characters I can recall ever reading. Your heart will bleed for this poor ole sap who can't seem to get his relationships right.
The book contains some additional side-stories which are introduced to us in the form of letters and short stories written to or by some of the other characters that Maxwell happens across throughout his travels. They were initially distracting, pulling us away from Maxwell and thrusting us into the trials and tribulations of solo-sailor and suicidal Donald Crowhurst, or the fucked-up relationship between a young Harold Sim (Max's dad) and his friend Rodger, or the story of The Nettle Pit which was written by his ex-wife, outlining a painful moment buried in Maxwell's past. But over time, the author begins to weave elements of each throughout Maxwell's journey, and we suddenly begin to appreciate the fact that we didn't skim over (or completely skip) those portions of the book. They do come to hold incredible meaning for Max, and for us, too, as the reader.
The book delicately navigates the slippery slope of uncomfortable and unattractive human emotions - loneliness, suicidal depression, jealousy, self hatred - in a tender and ticklish way. Yes, the situations Maxwell find himself in are sometimes quite cartoonish, but the author has his reasons for that. Which brings me to the book's somewhat aggravating ending.
See, there was a point in the book where Max finds himself stranded in his car, in the middle of a snowstorm with very little gas left and only his GPS for company. He was sliding back into a deep depression, on the verge of a very humiliating breakdown.. and it was quite an impressive scene. It had this sense of finality to it... you know? Like we were all sitting on the cusp of something huge, like we were holding our collective breath for a long, long moment, terrified of breaking the beauty of the moment... and then I noticed that there was still a disc and a half to go. What the wha? How could there still be a disc and half to go when it felt like the ending should be right here, right now?
What followed after that was something quite different than I had anticipated. There were some awkward twists and turns, and things were unnecessarily tied a wee bit too tightly into neat and pretty bows. I had wanted my heart to break, and what I ended up with was an ending that came completely out of left field - it was unexpected and unwanted. I wanted to ask the author for my time back. I felt cheated. I felt like Coe had run out of ideas. Like he thought... Oh Shit, I've let this thing go on too far, I've gotta wrap it up now.
Now that I have put some time between me and the story, and discussed the ending - albeit briefly - with an author friend who had read the book, I feel a little better about it. I'm not saying I accept it. I still believe the author missed his opportunity back there with Maxwell freezing to death in the car, pleading with "Emma" the GPS navigator not to leave him as the car battery died... he was so close to making this a #nextbestbook. Oh well...
Do yourself a favor though. When you do pick this up, and you really should pick this up, make sure to listen to it on Audio. Trust me! You won't regret it.