Howard Jacobson is getting harder to ignore. The 72-year-old British writer has been publishing witty novels for more than three decades and attracting the sort of critical acclaim earned by such stars as Peter Carey and Margaret Atwood. But he remains stubbornly obscure in the United States. The Finkler Question, his cerebral satire about anti-Semitism, won the 2010 Booker Prize (he’d been longlisted twice before), and his new novel, J, was on the shortlist for this year’s prize. All that success abroad raises The Jacobson Question: Why are American readers so uninterested?
I have two possible answers, neither satisfying:
1. People who buy literary fiction in this country tend to regard comic novels as though they’re mushrooms in the forest: possibly delicious, but not worth the risk. We'll stick with this 800-page bildungsroman, thank you very much.
2. There’s something troubling about Jacobson’s indeterminate comedy. We love our Jewish-mother jokes, but we’re deadly earnest about anti-Semitism, which is no laughing matter.
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J is unlikely to change that reception. Although it’s the author’s most serious novel, it’s also his most disquieting. In the bleak world that this story presents, wit and irony, along with jazz and literary fiction, have evaporated in the heat of a second Holocaust sometime in the 21st century. “Unpredictability unsettled people’s nerves,” Jacobson writes. The proscriptions against complex forms of art are not a matter of tyrannical law — nothing so crude as that in the enlightened future. Instead, “a compliant society meant that every section of it consented with gratitude — the gratitude of the providentially spared.”
For a dystopian novelist, Jacobson is coy about what disrupted modern civilization, and he has little interest in describing the intricacies of the current state. That vagueness, in fact, is the central theme of his story about a culture under “moral hypnosis,” determined never to remember: “The past exists in order that we forget it,” says an official at Ofnow, which monitors the public mood. “The overexamined life is not worth living.”
J plays out on Port Reuben, a small island of about 2,000 “rough-mannered men and wild women.” Except for a few trappings of modernity, they live largely without technology in a “prejudice-free workplace.” The people of Port Reuben refer to a long-ago cataclysm only as “What Happened, If It Happened.” They’re admonished to apologize constantly but never to admit blame, because there were no victims and there were no perpetrators. Released from “a recriminatory past into an unimpeachable future,” they live in the grip of an anesthetized absurdity designed to keep What Happened, If It Happened from ever happening again, which it may not have. And to further dissipate any lingering sense of tribal allegiance and subsequent conflict, everyone has taken a new name under Operation Ishmael. “We’re all one big happy family now,” a government official says.
As with George Orwell’s 1984, at the heart of J is a love story. Kevern “Coco” Cohen was raised by frightened parents and has grown into a chronically apprehensive man. “He spoke in a whisper that drew even more attention to his oddness,” Jacobson writes. Now 40 with an “air of grumpy probity,” he never leaves the house without peering back in through the letterbox to make sure he’s left a little trap for any intruders. He supports himself as a woodworker, a maker of carved candlesticks and lovespoons. Once a week, he teaches a class in the department of Benign Visual Arts.
In the opening pages, a stranger introduces Kevern to a young woman named Ailinn Solomons, who makes paper flowers. Although Kevern “lacked the trick of intimacy” and Ailinn “smelled of fish,” they stumble into a fragile romance. We watch these two lonely people struggle to set aside their suspicions — of each other, of the world, of happiness — and fall in love.
This is all tender and charming: Kevern is the sort of bumbling lover who compliments his girlfriend on her big feet and then wonders why she reacts badly. “You are the strangest man,” Ailinn tells him.
“Then we make a good pair of crazies,” he answers.
But even as these misfits learn to accommodate each other in this dark world, their story is slowly poisoned by a patchwork of grim historical flashbacks, conspiratorial conversations and secret official documents. Kevern and Ailinn, we come to understand, have not fallen in love under Cupid’s influence; they’re the centerpiece of a vast, grotesque scheme.
Readers coming to this novel with any familiarity with Jacobson’s work will notice that one group of people (starts with “J”) is never mentioned (no, not “Jamaicans”). They are, however, acknowledged in a variety of increasingly ominous and finally tragic ways. In The Finkler Question, Jacobson vivisected a celebrity double obsessed with becoming Jewish. If it didn’t exactly work as a novel, it certainly worked as a riotous index of the permutations of anti-Semitism. J keeps the comedian’s slippery dexterity and jettisons the humor. It sows anti-Semitism deep in the ground of a future world and then imagines the bizarre ways it might sprout again.
Jacobson may be writing in the great tradition of dystopian literature, but he takes a clever swipe at “what these writers gloomily and even hysterically prophesied.” When Kevern visits the big city of Necropolis, there are no genetic horrors or scorched fields. Instead, “a quiet moroseness prevailed.” Jacobson has something darker and older in mind than our subjection to robot overlords. He’s exploring the perverse necessity of anti-Semitism in human culture. The real goal, he suggests, is not the final eradication of the Jews but the constant eradication of the Jews — a re-establishing of what one government official calls the “equipoise of hate.” Without them — the ultimate Other — what would the rest of us do with all our unfocused self-loathing and fury? It’s a conclusion of unfathomable pessimism, supported, unfortunately, by centuries of bloody data.
I fear I’ve made J sound polemic, but many readers are likely to wish Jacobson were, in fact, a little less elliptical. His characters move in such a fog for so long that the narrative momentum sometimes slows, and themes arise like faint aromas or partially noticed objects at the edge of your vision.
But that’s all part of the amorphous menace that infects the world in J. It’s the nagging suspicion that Jacobson isn’t writing about the distant future.
Ron Charles reviewed this book for The Washington Post.