J by Howard Jacobson

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J by Howard Jacobson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: On the just-announced 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist: former winner Howard Jacobson with a peculiar dystopian novel that seems to posit a second racially and theologically inspired Holocaust.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: August 2014
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780224102056

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J marks an unusual turn for Howard Jacobson. Though it seems at times like a skewed folk tale, it also bears the subtle signs of a future dystopia. It has some of Jacobson's trademark elements – odd names, humorous metaphors, and Semitic references – but felt to me like a strange departure after The Finkler Question and Zoo Time.

Ailinn Solomons and Kevern Cohen are the quirky couple at the centre of this slight piece of speculative fiction. Kevern, or 'Coco', aged 40, is a woodcutter in the seaside town of Port Reuben who learns a disturbing fact about his parentage. Ailinn, 25, was raised an orphan in a convent and now lives in a crumbling mansion in Paradise Valley, where her companion is a mysterious older woman named Ez. Their romance seems fated – or perhaps engineered by various members of the community who choose these two to re-establish a lost bloodline.

One of the busybodies who takes a particular interest in Kevern is Everett 'Phinny' Zermansky, a painter and art teacher at the Bethesda Academy. He is the only character with first-person narration duties; his diary entries are the most interesting sections of a novel that otherwise has a rather flat omniscient voice. His bumpy relationship with his wife Demelza also recalls the troubled uxoriousness of Jacobson's previous two novels.

Jacobson's humour is on display in a contrast between 'squat scarab toes' and 'Pan pipes toes', and in a noteworthy simile: 'He could see the phone quietly pulsing yellow, as though receiving dialysis.' Much of the book is cosy small-town machinations: adultery comes to light, there are a few murders, and Kevern rightly suspects that someone is tapping his phone and monitoring his home. I thought often of the charming village setting hiding unpleasant secrets in Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker.

Yet there are hints of something much more serious in the recent past. Books are banned, foreign travel is discouraged, and communities have grown increasingly insular, 'all other forms of electronic communication having been shut down after what happened, if it happened.' Those last five words form the accepted verbal shorthand for some vague cataclysm that continues to affect everyone in Port Reuben and elsewhere.

Jacobson never reveals precisely what happened (if it happened), but it seems a bit like a second Holocaust in the 2010s: something no one ever thought could happen again, and certainly not here. Almost every character has a Jewish-sounding name, the result of a collective renaming. Interwoven with the narrative are striking few-page descriptions of violent purges, including a mass decapitation at Medina. Men, especially, seem inherently violent. Anger and misogyny are in the ascendant.

'Beliefs kill.' 'Violence quickly comes to look quite normal.' 'We always think what we're doing is humane, even when we're secretly relishing the evil of it.' Chilling lines like these join some telling criticism of religion and society. This book is clearly meant as a commentary on the danger of hating and ostracising the Other in one's midst, but for the most part I did not find Jacobson's dystopia very compelling or groundbreaking.

Couched as it is in a tedious relationship between a couple of damaged, paranoid characters, the message feels somewhat diluted. I preferred the short fable-like sections where the significance is much more obvious: 'The Wolf and the Tarantula' is an Aesop-like story that advocates being prepared and stocking up for the future rather than using all one's resources now, while the parable of the frog in the cooking pot is a reminder that any harrowing situation can come to seem normal if it builds up gradually enough.

A last note about the title: the letter J is verboten in this society; in speech or in writing it is stifled with a line drawn across the letter or two fingers crossing the mouth whenever it is uttered. I wondered if this is something to do with the Jewish practice of never speaking the full name of God aloud. Is Jacobson's a sort of anti-Book of J (one element of the Torah) – that is, decidedly not a theological record of how a nation began and the words of God were conveyed? Is it a record of destruction instead of foundation?

It may be that clever, or it may just be a thin future tale. To me it felt like there were too many asides from the main story; it was too much work to piece together what happened in this society, and the eventual reveal was not quite enough of a payoff.

Further reading suggestion: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, another unusual dystopia, was on the 2014 Man Booker Prize longlist. Jacobson fans may prefer The Finkler Question, a better showcase for his wit and Jewish themes.

Booklists.jpg J by Howard Jacobson is in the Man Booker Prize 2014.

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