Home Forums General Discussion Maxwell Sim – the final chapter

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    A thread for those who have read the novel in its entirety, obviously.

    I’ve been pondering some of the responses, not just to the novel as a whole, but to the closing pages. Here are six fairly representative quotes about the final chapter:

    "in a wonderful coup de theatre, Coe pulls the rug out from underneath the reader and paradoxically makes the ending all the more moving" (Sunday Telegraph)

    "the only false note in an absorbing book." (Irish Independent)

    "As for the final page…loved it loved it loved it…worth reading the book just to see what sleight of hand Jonathan Coe comes up with to round off his novel." (dovegreyreader, literary blogger)

    "I hated the ending and felt it almost spoiled the book" (SleepyJ, on this site’s message board)

    "I’d love to write about the ending to this book. Frankly, I have never read anything like it before but can’t discuss it here for fear of wrecking the experience of reading the book." (‘A Common Reader’, amazon reviewer)

    "There is something chronic and ill-judged about the climax … A good decade of enjoying Coe’s novels comes to an abrupt end with this. Very disappointing." (bookmunch, literary blogger)

    To be honest I never imagined, when the idea for that chapter came to me, that it would run the risk of annoying people so much. It just seemed to me (for subconscious rather than rational reasons) the correct way to end this particular story. However, it’s been fascinating to see what a raw nerve it touches with some readers – they aren’t just disappointed by it, they seem to actually hate me for having written it! I’m not asking for opinions for and against – I can understand why some readers might be disappointed by the ending of the book, but it seems to go further than that, to the point where I think we are confronting quite an interesting issue about the experience of reading novels: what we expect from them, and what demands we make in return. Does anyone have any theories about why feelings run so high on this subject?


    What about the sheer pleasure of storytelling and storyreading? Maybe, I am too simplistic, but I cannot imagine a better explanation for the passionate reactions. The comparison with sex is not unwarrented, here. Messing up the conclusion of a story is to spoil a high and coveted pleasure. Well, come on Jonathan, you MUST know that yours is a risky profession… 🙂


    I think that many people did not like because when you read a novel you enter into the story by living it, and when you arrive in the final pages and the author tell you that everything you read is from his mind and his "pen" you … detract from the enchantment of reading. Personally however I also liked those last pages, the entry of Coe’s reminds me to a Kind of Hitchock…. and I imagined that the author had entered in the story to "pamper" the protagonist who has no longer a wife, a daughter and not even 70 friends on Facebook …


    To me the book was all about how easy it is to miss what is in front of you and what could make you happy…how tenuous and how precious our connections with ourselves and others are. With this in mind, the ending – which, to be fair, is flagged by the author that you don’t have to read (danger! postmodernism ahead!) – is the satisfying, final clicking into place of the tile puzzle. Everything has to be created by someone making connections and making a story, especially a novel…a novel in which people keep failing to make connections, or make bizarre connections and have to have what’s really going on pointed out to them. Wonderful ending.


    Whether you present us a fictional story on B.S.Johnson or a documentary about Maxwell Sim, it provokes memories and images of our own live. Along with this we experience real emotions: we got frightened, we laugh because of some detail wich has no further meaning to anyone else, …
    After 400 pages communicating with M.S. you confronted us with our own terrible privacy. That’s the power of art, isn’t it?
    I like it


    Some years ago, Frank Kermode wrote some interesting and valuable pages about the "sense of an ending". We might say that there is a sort of power struggle or "negotiation" going on between author and reader with regard to storyending. We are talking about fiction, of course, so the novelist’s reflexivity, skepticism and impatience are indisputably welcome. But storytelling requires (some sort of) a beginning and an end. We never break free of this (mild) need for order. So we cannot get rid of the expectations and the inescapable swinging between satisfaction and frustration. The novelist is also a reader, isn’t s/he? So I suppose that s/he knows all of this first hand. Or am I wrong?


    I think ‘choccolata’ gets nearest to my problem with the ending of the book. Reading for me has always been a completely immersive experience and I am able to enter completely into the suspension of disbelief that most fiction requires. Having the author come along at the end to tell me that I really shouldn’t have bought into the story because it is just a fiction leaves me feeling more than a little foolish. So my theory is simply that in bursting the fictional balloon you have broken the implicit contract between reader and writer, something that is bound to offend the average Englishman’s sense of fair play. At the same time I respect your right to rip up that contract or to protest that it only ever existed in my mind in the first place. I certainly don’t "hate" you for it and you might judge it a mark of success that so many readers have spent so long thinking about this issue and pondering the dynamics of the author/reader relationship and the experience of reading fiction.


    Re the ending. Maxwell had found himself, we wanted hime to move on and start his new life, hence the reaction of some. However, Jonathan only got there 2 minutes before we did, when we placed the book back in the bookcase. We don’t expect a piece of music to continue after the last musician has put his instrument down, but that is maybe missing the point. I’ve read something similar in another novel (‘fraid can’t remember which) and also remember some adult characters being introduced in ‘At Swim Two Birds’ as newly born but 6ft tall and clothed. These are nice touches that say something profound about writing, characteristaion and the readers’ relationships to it.


    I like altho’s comment very much! I totally endorse it (for all it’s worth).
    It’s a strange relationship that forms between reader and characters…
    As I was nearing the end of A Voyage for Madmen (thank you Jonathan for advising I should read it) I almost hoped the end would be different from what I knew it would be…


    I was a little annoyed by it, and I think it is connected to the parenthood. Like with kids, the characters in books go on with their lives and find their own way. The writer is just a watcher: you tell us what you see, maybe you can help sometimes (I was amused by your cameo at the airport) but you don’t have the right to say how it has to go on in the very end. How do you dare thinking that Maxwell’s life can stop just when there are no more pages? 🙂 What you create goes on living furhter beyond you and you cannot control. You gave it to us, to the word, be brave and say good luck.
    I hope I wasn’t too rude – as I did when I spoke about English cuisine, in Florence, sorry. It’s just my bad English, and my enthusiasm. Actually, I’m very grateful to you!


    jonathan wrote :
    > Does anyone have any theories about why feelings run so
    > high on this subject?

    I didn’t read the other posts (but will read some of them), so I hope nobody already posted something the like of what I will post now. Don’t want to be repetitive. I’d like to point to a story the famous literary critic Pierre Bayard has written about in one of his essays about Arthur Conan Doyle. Apparently, after having put his at the time incredibly popular character Sherlock Holmes to death in a short story in which he has met his "bad-guy alter ego" (the anti-Holmes!), many readers literary went out into the streets to protest against this. Some of them even threatened the poor author. If we have to believe Pierre Bayard, it was total madness. Frenzy, that’s what it was! Arthur Conan Doyle felt almost obliged to make his detective arise from the dead.
    I’m not saying that what you’re experiencing is anything like it, but there are some parallels. The explanation I would suggest is that when an author depict his or her characters in such a moving, humanlike and recognizable way, immediate empathy and character identification is inevitable. I’m not saying Conan Doyle did his best to render his character sympathetic (quite to the contrary, he was a genius in making him look arrogant and haughty, but that’s only my opinion, and I’d like to add that Conan Doyle was in many other ways, a brilliant writer), but his readers were so enthusiastic about his novels and short stories, that they simply hated the fact of seeing Holmes die. Bayard stresses the problem that some people can be so absorbed by novels that they tend to forget that the characters and situations ARE NOT REAL. They’re fiction (of course, we could start discussing this: are they?).
    My point here is that it takes a bloody good author to make this kind of fiction. Take this miniature frenzyas a compliment, I would say 🙂 Those readers just hated the fact that Maxwell Sim wasn’t a real person after all. I myself just decided that this last chapter doesn’t belong to Sim’s story any more and that he will be perfectly happy with Uncle Clive and place a beautiful gravestone on his mother’s grave. It’s silly, I know, because I did like it, but as some sort of literary experiment, not as being part of Sim’s story.


    I think people feel so strongly because they have invested a lot of time and care in Maxwell only to be told he isn’t real or worth it. But that’s what I like about it! I think it touches on the thread of online personas and relationships. We all construct identities for ourselves online that depict how we want to be seen rather than how we are seen. Surely if we were to meet the faceless people we interact with though social networking they would be dazzled by the mundanity of our lives. The ending of the book captures that for me.


    The first suspect about Maxwell Sim sneaked into my subconsciousness, when he – apart from all his other mental deviations – starts to act like an upcoming novelist himself and invents his hot night with Alison. Then, when finally finished the novel, my first reaction was, that the last chapter was a bit overdone, but in a second thought I felt that one can go even further. Now in the novel we are left with exactly four levels of illusion, i.e. starting from the night with Alison, which was made up by Max, who is made up by a novel writer in the last chapter, who finally of course is made up by J.C. himself! So far so good, but is the chain of nested illusions really complete? I think, we should not be to sure about this, because, just as you find superordinate intelligence in termite states (note, each of them alone know little, but together they have the knowledge of how to construct their "home" with a perfectly functioning ventilation system), we humans are slaves to the "Weltgeist". Its clear, J.C. just had to choose the leitmotif „virtuality versus reality“ or in other words confront us with the question of how real have our lifes become? But to repeat myself, this topic had to be tackled, it had been dragged into J.C.s mind by the "Weltgeist", which in turn is of course only an instant reflection of divinity.

    So, who are we now, what has happened? Once again Ptolomeus thinks he is on the safe side? No way, we will always remain out of axis, no matter how many tricks we play, we are not mastering anything at all, but to the best, the personification a little glooming idea.


    I was so enthralled by this book – which incidentally I finished reading about an hour ago – that I didn’t mind the "trick" ending. I had already been fooled by other twists along the way, which I didn’t see coming, so I was getting used to it by now.

    A marvellous story which had the power to restore my faith in humanity. There is more truth in fiction than anywhere else.


    "There is more truth in fiction than anywhere else." There is more truth in that sentence than … wel … in many other sentences. Fiction makes us see the world through the eyes of a fictional but no less real person. It makes us walk in other people’s shoes and live their experiences. It opens our minds.

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