Friday, October 3, 2014

Jonathan Coe Spies On Expo 58

Expo 58
Don't expect to find James Bond inside the short and sublime novel Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe. The book reads like a bittersweet short story and is expressly subtle in its presentation.

At its center is Thomas Foley, a writer/clerk employed by the British Central Office of Information who is assigned to oversee a British pub being set up at the Brussels World Fair a.k.a. Expo 58. He was the most sensible choice. His father owned an English pub and his mother was born in Belgium.

Expo 58 is a delightfully light and low key spy story. 

The significance of the assignment cannot be understated. It was the first fair to be organized after World War II in an effort to demonstrate that everyone was ready to move beyond the global conflict and work together. And yet, most countries involved saw the expo as an opportunity to work apart.

While held at a time of relative peace, the Brussels World's Fair was also held near the height of the Cold War. The Russians had a slight upper hand on the world stage, having already launched Sputnik 1 into orbit and poised to demand that Western powers evacuate any forces from West Berlin.

The expo itself was also an anomaly in that it brought the people of the world together to live in an artificial community without any clarity as to how long they would live together in such a spectacle. Of course, it also created the perfect environment to execute covert operations in plain sight.

Foley doesn't catch onto any of it immediately. He is too busy being wrapped up in the idiosyncrasies of his countrymen, the international popularity of the stereotypical English pub 'Britannia,' and the alluring prospect of a Flemish hostess named Anneke (despite having left his wife and a colicky child back home). All of these things seem to hold his interest, that is, until Foley's roommate vanishes after a night of excessive libations. Worse, the infamous ZETA machine is missing along with him.

Expo 58 evolves to become an amusing anti-Bond thriller.

UK Building
It quickly become clear that Foley has very little in common with the character James Bond. The central intelligence business is much more disarming. While his assumption that the Russians have kidnapped his roommate or that his roommate might have defected are inaccurate, his observation lands him his first covert assignment.

He is ordered to temper his affections for Anneke and instead focus them on American actress Emily Parker. Parker, it seems, is the real target. KGB agent Alexei Chersky, posing as a Russian journalist, has seduced her with the intent to convince her to defect. For duty and love of country, Foley is asked to do whatever it takes to woo her away.

A couple quick graphs on author Jonathan Coe.

Jonathan Coe
English novelist and author Jonathan Coe is a master at writing expressly comic political stories with playful and engaging versatility. Coe is also the author of The Winshaw Legacy and nine other novels. His many prizes include the Everyman Wodehouse Prize and the Samuel Johnson Prize.

Coe was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, in 1961 and eventually studied at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and Trinity College, Cambridge. He also taught at the University of Warwick, where he completed an MA and PhD in English literature.

Expo 58: A Novel By Jonathan Coe Sneaks 8.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

His work in Expo 58 will delight and frustrate some readers. They will be delighted because there is no question that Coe is a gifted writer and the story is couched in a whimsical Hitchcock feel. They may be frustrated in that the story progresses to an anti-climax before ending on a life-spanning epilogue of sorts, which leaves the story gasping in regret instead of resolution, humorous or otherwise.

Expo 58: A Novel By Jonathan Coe can be found on Amazon. The audiobook Expo 58 can also be found on iTunes. It is narrated by Napoleon Ryan, who brings just enough seriousness to the read to retain the author's intent. The constant smirk inside Expo 58 is meant to read both ways. Expo 58 can also be found at Barnes & Noble.
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