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The Terrible Voyage of a Technophobe by Jonathan Coe

Any individual informed by one over-riding characteristic tends to be either comical or menacing. The "Something of Someone" in a title, meanwhile, is always an advertisement for a Bildungsroman.

Jonathan Coe, as one of our wiliest and most readable satirists, offers no exception in The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. Sim is on sick-leave from clinical depression. Returning from a visit to his estranged father in Australia, arranged by his ex-wife Caroline, he decides to "reconnect with the world". He proceeds to pour out his thoughts about living in Watford to his neighbour on the long flight home. The man listens silently, with a glassy look. Sim hasn't noticed that he's had a heart attack.

Sim is the kind of figure who once featured in Ealing comedies: a middle-aged Everyman who is neither stupid nor obtuse, but doomed to appear both. It took TS Eliot's genius to raise this kind of figure, in "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock", into tragic bathos. Sim's existential odyssey is punctuated by technological intrusion and incompetence. His surname is that of the chip in a mobile phone. The internet provides the novel its best riffs, as when Sim finds 137 emails on his return, all but one about increasing his penis size. We have all received spam, but only Coe has turned it into a kind of poem about masculinity which makes you cry with laughter.

As the narrator exclaims smartly, "Only disconnect". Our hero stalks his ex-wife through the internet, and starts to talk back to the seductive voice of the Sat-Nav in his Prius. Several other stories are woven in, the most interesting that of the fraudulent yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, a real-life Walter Mitty who pretended to take part in a race only to be let down by an early version of a computer. Crowhurst is the spitting image of Sim's appalling father. You expect this thread to be part of the plot, but our narrator's own PR-driven "race" on behalf of an ecologically-sustainable toothbrush manufacturer takes a different direction.

At its most entertaining, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a parable about the feeling many now have of not being in control of their own story. What mitigates this is Coe's fondness for inserting playful metatexts, so we also get Sim's ex-wife's attempt at a short story, a memoir by a girl he fancied, and a letter from a stranger. Where this appeared fresh and clever in What a Carve-Up! and The Rotter's Club, it does not play to Coe's strengths as an essentially comic writer.

Most dismaying of all, Coe introduces himself as the author into the final chapter, a trick Martin Amis and Paul Auster have played before. Coe himself sits somewhere between Amis and David Lodge in our pantheon of male writers; like them, he avoids creating the credible psychological portraits which would raise him to another level. Yet his mordant perceptiveness about the modern world makes him a consistently pleasurable novelist even, as here, in a lesser work.

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