Number 11: satire and the skewing of the spectacle

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe is now out in paperback, like many of his works there’s Birmingham in the prose.

If you’ve watched a football match recently, you’ll have noticed that it looked not like football should: but something more pristine. Perfect grass, shining at you at the right colour,  the crowd static, the players all so universally healthy: so universally quick that the speed of the game is uniform and appears slow. Every game has the lustre of a meaningless pre-season friendly. Don’t all new bands look like bands created for a film, walking like a duck, but not quite being Chuck Berry.

Is the spectacle broken? It might be possible that the angle of incidence no longer equals the angle of reflection. It might be possible that recuperation no longer quite works in the end game of capitalism. Maybe Debord was wrong.

I tried to pin this down, find the point where the spectacle stopped working, and it might be the brief career of Jet  – a band that looked so much like Kasabian (already an indie band created for a Russell Brand romp-com)  – who had a big hit with a song that sounded exactly like Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life. Exactly like it. Lust for Life had only been a revival hit a few years previously, but Jet’s song hit the charts and no-one said anything: especially not the music press that had sped up retreading of trends as if the kids were screaming because they wanted to go faster. Rather than because they were alienated.

Like the continual racist apophasis about how we can’t talk about immigration, the bastardly now hide in plain view. Tom Lehrer said that when Kissinger won the Nobel prize ‘satire died’, but maybe it not dead but turning in on itself.

Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 presents as satire, but the majority of the content isn’t exaggerated or taken out of context: TV does lie, tax avoidance and mega-wealth are inseparable and unapologetic, £160M new libraries do reduce service due to lack of money for staff and new books.

In fact the book seems not so much a satire as a rumination in the future of satire itself in the era of the cracked spectacle. A satire perhaps on satire: explicitly in the raft of “slightly overweight men with brightly coloured shirts untucked” and opinions that do nothing but signal their right-on-ness. Coe delights in mocking the toothless satire of the weak-willed.

For the Birmingham reader, the locations and some of the outrages of modern Britain will be closer to home than they often experience. For me a sometime satirist with a fixation on Birmingham’s libraries and the power of satire to change things I felt that the book was tangling with my own thoughts. Add to that the use of the number 11 bus and the setting of one of the stories near my semi-rural home in Oxfordshire and you can see why I peered through this glass so intently.

As a selection of intertwined but separate stories, the most overly satirical features Nate of the Station  – a PC who believes that solving crimes in the modern-day involves looking at the socio-political and economic context. Well, no shit Sherlock: but this is a more esoteric he will use psychogeography, or even stand-up comedy DVDs or polemic blogs to get to the bottom of the case. This is a fine device that you could see pulling out into a Dirk Gently-style series, or even TV — but although this is connected it feels separate from the rest of the book, from the notional prequel What a Carve Up!, from the wonderful and gentle emotional connections that some of the other stories have.

Some of the targets, the superficiality of 140 characters, right-wing newspaper columnists are an easy target, but Coe is able to get laughs out of it, as well as having his cake and eating it (for what else is the point of cake? Instagramming it?) by satirising the satire of these.

There is a twist, another twist, one that pulls the focus much further back than the micro-11s: the bus, the house, the basement, the chancellor and his ilk. The economic value of fear is an idea touched upon in the book, but I would say it’s Coe’s point that we aren’t scared enough of the right things.

The death of Dr David Kelly, just before the invasion of Iraq, is pegged in the book as a possible point of the death of society’s innocence. And maybe that’s when the spectacle broke. Debord made it clear that “the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images,”  so the breaking of trust is the splintering of the relationships, is the end of the power of the spectacle.

We can see the truth without the help of satire: but Coe doesn’t seem to think that we’ll take notice.  

Author: Jon Bounds

Jon was voted the ‘14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands’ in 2008. Subsequently he has not been placed. He’s been a football referee, venetian blind maker, cellar man, and a losing Labour council candidate: “No, no chance. A complete no-hoper” said a spoilt ballot. Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama performed on Twitter when he persuaded a cast including MPs and journalists to give over their timelines to perform Twitpanto. But all that is behind him.