Home Forums General Discussion Maxwell Sim – the final chapter

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    I found the end very interesting. My first reaction was : Oh no ! don’t tell me it was not true !!! And then it came up to my mind : of course it was not true ! it’s a story. It helped me to transpose what happened to Max to my own life, otherwise I would have considered all this to be Max’s business (I’m french, please apologize my mistakes)



    Here’s a link to a video on Yahoo with Jonathan talking about the end



    So, I can open this track, having finished Maxwell Sim yesterday.
    Very interesting posts on the author/reader relationship…

    For my part, the second last chapter already made me lose my footing : the character of the Chinese lady was too enigmatic to me, and I did not quite make her out. And the hint at homosexuality (am I wrong?). Was this part paving the way to the next encounter?

    And to keep this reverse journey, I felt I was "cheated upon" in all the post-Shetlands part: the new job, the Australia trip, the fresh start of the father – son relationship I could not trust. I actually thought JC would then treat us with a cold shower,as he did just after the missed lovemaking of Alison and Max in Edinburgh. But then, it ended in one more surprizing way. Well, that’s real talent…

    Being "cheated upon" this way was marvelous, and the read excellent. I loved the way the character has his life written by others, and discovers it in a chain of coincidences.

    I’ve been pondering on the "anti-hero" theme : JC seems to oppose anti-heroes to genuine or fake heroes. The genuine one was for example Gagarine in What a carve-up, and of course Donald Crowhurst in Maxwell Sim is a fake one. But the staging of both struck me as similar : childhood memories of idols and popular glee.

    In Maxwell Sim, a cave opens in front on the feet of the anti-hero, revealing a -super-anti-hero in the form of his father. Then there is a kind of a climbing wall to retrieve the whole story, and at the end I was left baffled … and almost ashamed with my pondering on heroes!


    Dear Jonathan–

    There are all sorts of things I want to say about the ending, which I find very thought provoking now, after I’ve read it. But I’d better try to focus on the specific question. Why do people react so violently to it? I suspect you must have anticipated some adverse reaction to it: you do call the chapter the square root of minus one, drawing a parallel with Donald Crowhurst’s descent into solipsism and madness.

    Similar things have been done before. In "The French Lieutenant’s Woman", for instance. And Karel Capek’s "War with the Newts." I think there’s a perception that such "tricks" are rather out of date now, having been in vogue in the 60s and 70s. I put "tricks" in inverted commas because I’m aware that’s an unfairly disparaging word. It’s as if it’s considered bad form to use the technique more than once or twice in a generation. Writers can use a whole arsenal of narrative cliches as many times as they like–the detective rushing to the aid of the final victim with only seconds to spare, for instance–but this technique, which is not a cliche, seems to be felt to be "bad art"… as in that patronising Guardian review in which Alex Clark wonders "why novelists ever think this is a good idea."

    I agree that the chapter feels a little like the breaking of a contract between writer and reader. Of course it doesn’t actually erase the illusion–it just adds an extra, precarious layer of illusion. The narrator remains the fictional Maxwell Sim–you, the real writer, do not take his place. Instead we get the intrusion into the fictional narrative world of an unnamed "writer" who seems to claim similarities to you, Jonathan Coe. Perhaps the problem (if it is a problem) is that the fiction becomes an illusion we can’t believe in.


    Dear Jonathan Coe,

    I feel so strongly about the ending of ‘The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim’ that I’ve registered on your forum to tell you what I think. Now, I’m a writer myself (although my publishing history is very minimal indeed), but I did study English at university, and I’m an avid reader–I also know about B.S.Johnson, who was a friend of an old acquaintance of mine, and I recognise post-modernist riffs when I see them. But, those credentials aside, perhaps it would be better for me to comment just as an avid reader of fiction.

    Jonathan, that last section of your novel entitled ‘Fairlight Beach’ is clever in a self-referential, look-at-me I’m a writer way, but, in my view, it’s a mistake, and worse than that, it’s crass. It spoils the impact of the previous three hundred pages and it doesn’t work. It adds nothing, it’s unconvincing, and it’s deeply irritating.

    If I was you, I’d persuade my publisher to omit it from all future editions of the novel.


    Thanks again Andrew for your thoughtful comments.

    And thank you, Goth Lady for your post and for the four-star review you posted on Amazon (this kind of thing is very much appreciated, by the way!). As you can see from this thread, the final chapter of the novel has elicited a range of different responses from readers. As I’ve said many times, on this board and elsewhere, the main theme of Maxwell Sim is the choice we face between forging our most meaningful relationships with real people or with virtual/imaginary personalities (whether they are intelligent machines like the voice on our GPS, or fictional identities on social networking sites). To me, this is a question intimately bound up with my vocation as a writer. I have spent the last forty years of my life creating fictional characters, entering into close relationships with them myself and encouraging other people (my readers) to do the same. And yet I am haunted by the possibility that fiction itself is – in BS Johnson’s words – nothing but ‘an escape from the challenge of coming to terms with real people’. This is the spectre that my last chapter (comically, I had hoped) tries to raise.

    Being ‘clever’ in the way that you suggest was the last thing on my mind. As Andrew C points out, these devices are as old as the hills, and I have too much respect for my readers to have imagined that they would consider my final chapter remotely innovative or experimental. As you know, in the English novel, the technique of direct authorial intervention goes back at least as far as Fielding (who nobody considers ‘postmodern’). My own doctoral thesis was on intrusive narration in Tom Jones: I wrote it in 1986, so that’s how long I have been thinking about these issues.

    Nevertheless, I’m sorry the ending didn’t work for you. It’s always a bit of a downer to realise that you have disappointed some of your readers.



    I do hate to keep putting the boot in here, Jonathan, and believe me, I do admire your work (absolutely love ‘The Rotters Club’), but your ending didn’t just disappoint me (a person who’s aware of B.S.Johnson, post-modernism etc.), but it absolutely infuriated my husband, a person who is a great reader but not a lover of literary theory. He felt that the ending, with the reminder ‘this is just a piece of fiction’ was really quite insulting to the reader who’d just invested so much time reading the book and empathising with the central character. To him, it seemed to suggest that the author was being ironic at the expense of the audience, and pointing out that they shouldn’t have suspended their disbelief.

    As for B.S.Johnson thinking that fiction is an escape from the challenge of dealing with the real people, I’m afraid I think he’s utterly wrong! It’s through fiction that we develop our empathy—it’s the only way we can get inside the heads of people different from ourselves.


    I am 49, have no job, my wife wants a divorce and I am having to leave my two young girls to look for a bedsit where I can live in my terrible loneliness.

    The more I read Maxwell Sim the more I was suffused by a sense of hope, the book is so dense, so ‘true’. Near the end I even walked around having a bit of a cry to myself. a happy cry, a cry that was ever so slightly suffused with hope.

    It was in this mood that I sat to read the final chapter. I was shocked and angry cheated almost. In fact so angry that for the first time in my life I decided to do something about it and looked for a way to express my displeasure to Mr Coe.

    But I know it is a story. Why is the last few pages any different? How can one piece of writing produce feelings of hope and yet the other make you feel cheated? How do the story and the last chapter inter-relate to each other? The last chapter tells us that it did not happen, but I know that already.

    I think I was upset because Mr Coe seemed to be offering a ‘redemption’ for Max and for me. But Mr Coe is not here to offer redemption.

    Emma says "It’s up to you, Max. Completely up to you". And so it is.

    Thank you Mr. Coe


    Actually the ending reminds me of something you’ve written about fiction (as opposed to B.S. Johnson’s ultrarealistic notion of fiction): Literature should not be very lifelike, or not try too hard to achieve a state of realism, or even naturalism, if that term still means something these days. Literature should embellish things. Literature should make the reader aware that he or she is actually reading a novel.

    Well, I do tend to forget that while reading your novels, or Paul Auster’s, or any writer whose fiction is a true revalation. I liked the ending, but only as a sort of wake-up call, or a playful device. In my mind, I try to seperate both endings. As a non-actual person, Maxwell will meet this uncle and they will probably – or hopefully – be happy together. And the bond with his father will be reinforced. But as a literary character, he simply disappears. Just like Victor Frankenstein does, just like Leopold Bloom does, just like Meursault does, just like Benjamin Trotter does. Not with a snap of the fingers from the author in question, but when the reader turns the page and decides about which novel to read next.

    My girlfriend has read quite a few novels of yours already, and she really loved them. I wonder what she will think of this ending, whenever she will read the book.

    In any case, how great to have written a passage that has sparked off so many different opinions.

    quote :

    As for B.S.Johnson thinking that fiction is an escape from the challenge of dealing with the real people, I’m afraid I think he’s utterly wrong! It’s through fiction that we develop our empathy—it’s the only way we can get inside the heads of people different from ourselves.

    Hear, hear. You’re absolutely right. I’ve written a thesis about this, and I’ve read books of, among others, Lisa Zunshine, in order to understand this. It’s a very interesting thing, characterism. It made me want to experiment with it in my own novel, in which the boundaries of fiction and reality start to blur. Really fascinating how our mind gathers textual clues in order to compose a character ourselves. And no one who will ever know whether that image of that character corresponds or is even remotely similar to the character the author had in mind.


    Today I was reading about Amina (the Syrian lesbian blogger who turned out to be a creation by an American would-be writer) and this discussion somehow came to my mind. If some of Jonathan’s readers got so angry about his breaking the illusion that Max could continue to live, I can’t imagine how they would have felt if they’d been the Canadian woman who thought she was in a relationship with "Amina" or any of the people who were willing to put their lives at risk to save her.
    This is neither the time nor the place to argue whether McMaster’s doings are shameful, like many say , or just an "original" way of bringing attention to the troubles in the Middle East. What I want to point out is that reality and fiction are more intermingled than we appear to notice, and that our own interpretation of reality is often influenced by the ideas and ideals that we form also by reading fiction.
    A successful hoax like Amina’s is possible only if a lot of attention to detail is given, including to the voice in which the protagonist speaks, so I suppose McMaster must have been good at that, nearly as good as Jonathan, only with a lot more moral implications in being found out than what Jonathan has had to face with a few disappointed readers.
    "There is truth in fiction" and there is fiction in reality, in the end what remains is what we make of both.


    It was good reading some of the reviews. I’ve just finished the book and really don’t like the way the last pages made me feel. I love Coe, what he writes and how he writes it but have regularly been disappointed by his endings. starting with What a carve up. I don’t know, I’m no writer, but is blowing one’s endings up a form of mannerism ?
    This one is worse. I loved the book and thought that the phone call to Clive was a great ending. what follows is totally useless and it does spoil part of the (great) pleasure.


    Why I loved it: I, for one, loved the ending. It was surprising, of course, but if I love one thing, that is being surprised by the ending of a book. I think the first thing I appreciated about these books are the twists, the surprising endings. A book is not just about the reader identifying himself with the character, but also about surprising the reader by creating situations that would have never gone through his head. Many have the capacity of creating characters that resemble a certain type of person, but few have the talent of creating unpredictable situations, since most of the things that we read today have already been written many times before.

    Why I think others didn’t: I don’t think that eliminating the last chapter, as someone suggested, is a solution, since it is an important element that makes the difference between this book and any other following the unpredictable life of a predictable character. I think that the reader should be given the opportunity to choose for himself the ending that he likes best. I understand that it is an ending that doesn’t give the reader the satisfaction of closure, especially to the one who has identified himself with the character, but the purpose of books isn’t to determine the reader to follow on the character’s footsteps if he identifies himself with him. Maybe I have a romantic view on books, but I think their purpose is to inspire and develop our imagination.

    Why they should: Without imagination, novels are just pages filled with words that just cover a blank surface. "How to lose 10 pounds in one day" is a guide, "The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim" is a novel. It doesn’t tell you how to live your life or what should be your next step if you think your life resembles to the one of Maxwell Sim’s. So if you didn’t like the last chapter, imagine that it ended with Max calling Clive. The final chapter is not an imagination spoiler, it is quite the contrary, inspiring the reader to imagine his own ending for the story of Maxwell Sim. And what would be a better ending for a story where the main character was created with the purpose of illustrating an ordinary person than for an ordinary person to imagine his own ending for the story?


    "Maybe I have a romantic view on books, but I think their purpose is to inspire and develop our imagination" – I like this statement, Rosemary, and I don’t think it is romantic in the pejorative sense of the word at all. It sounds simply true to my ears. And yet, it is open to debate what may be the best way to stir the reader’s imagination. In a sense, I agree with you (and Jonathan) that some twists or literary tricks are useful to wrest the reader away from his/her comfortable passivity. But there is a thin line between opening up the reader’s inner eye and disrupting the subtle game of distance and proximity that the practice of novel-reading consists in. To know how to end a story is important, after all. And I discern a sincere respect for his readers in Jonathan’s effort to strike the right balance between sheer intellectual brilliancy (or should I say ‘coolness’) and genuine trust in the disclosing (and sometimes even healing) power of storytelling. If I should choose a maxim here, it would be the following: "To comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable".


    Dear Jonathan,

    the minute i finished reading Maxwell story and the final chapter i just rushed on internet to find a way to tell you how much i enjoyed your novel together with the ending that made me laugh for long. In french we would call it " une pirouette" , yet having accepted for many pages the "présence" of Emma" , this wasn’t quite unexpected ! Like a painter signature when he wants to put an end to his painting (sometimes they don’t know when the painting is really finished).

    Then i tried to understand your surprising move, and i think i’m not wrong to think it as a call on readers reactions (token being partly the numerous reactions on this topic)after all novels like paintings are often good dialogues spots between readers and watchers, they barely include the writers or the painters themselves.

    Montaigne said once " Il n’y a de chagrin ou d’ennui qu’une heure de lecture ne m’ait oté", well … one hour reading your books has always the same effect on me ! Thank you

    ps ! : i have a GPS on my car i don’t use it on usual itineraries, lately i switched it on driving my 92 years old mother to her bridge club she was startled hearing that soft woman’s voice and she said how kind of her ! then i turned it on the man’s voice, she said "oh they are a team ! that man must be quite handsome with such a voice"… not far from Clive’s voice !

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