All human life is within here - J by Howard Jacobson
Eilis O'Hanlon on the latest from Howard Jacobson, who could win his second Booker Prize this year
Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30
If Howard Jacobson wins the Booker Prize in October for this, his 13th novel, he will become only the fourth member of a small, illustrious club of two-time victors, alongside Peter Carey, JM Coetzee and Hilary Mantel. He previously took home the accolade in 2010 for his last but one work, The Finkler Question, a book so quintessentially Jewish that the last two words should really have been "Oy Vey" rather than "The End".
The comic stereotype is appropriate because if J is about anything, it is, as all Jacobson's novels ultimately are, about the experience of being Jewish in a non-Jewish, frequently hostile anti-Jewish world.
Its publication at this moment, as the conflict in Gaza dominates the headlines and resurrects in its wake some ancient prejudices amongst superficially tolerant European intellectuals, could not be more timely, though the contemporary references here are not so explicit as in other books by the same author. Many of the geographical and cultural signposts are missing, because this story is set in an indeterminate dystopian future in some indeterminable place.
The story takes place in the future years after a cataclysmic event so traumatic that it is referred to only as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. History is now discouraged, and those with too much curiosity about the past are regarded with suspicion. Even jazz has been forgotten. Yet, though they don't speak about it openly, all the characters seem unable to shake free from a strange guilt that somehow this Orwellian state of affairs is all their fault.
"Something terrible's been done to everybody everywhere," as one of the characters declares. "What's the point of hunting down the specifics?"
In the case of J, the specifics are that Ailinn Solomons and Kevern Cohens have fallen in love, in their own way, and she has moved into his house in a place called Port Reuben. Then there is a double murder. Lowenna Morgenstern and Ythel Weinstock are found in pools of each other's blood, "this ghoulish intermingling of bodily fluids" being taken by the police "as a commentary on the other sort of fluidal intermingling in which Morgenstern and Weinstock had not doubt been frenetically engaged at the moment their assailant struck."
But who really killed them? Kevern had once kissed the dead woman. A detective with a Germanic name and a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories arrives on the scene. Kevern feels hunted, like Moby-Dick with Captain Ahab on his tail.
The adjective "Kafkaesque" is one of the most overused in all literary criticism, but if ever a novel deserved the epithet, this is it. There are deliberate echoes of The Trial, in which a man known only as K is hounded and punished for an unknown crime, as well as Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman. Chapter Six even bears the title An Inspector Calls in a pointed reference to JB Priestley's famous play about a detective interrogating, in effect, an entire society for its moral shortcomings.
The novel takes a while to get going, and it would be a lie to say that it's an easy read; it's a tangled, complicated narrative that often seems to be delighting in its wilful obscurity, and there probably won't be a single reader who fully understands what's going on.
There are times when it seems as if the author himself is not entirely in control of all the threads. But once it gets into its stride, Jacobson's characteristic wit and wordplay soon kicks into action. The dialogue is a delight. The jokes are first rate. As an author, he doesn't spare himself either. After one particularly florid passage from a researcher employed by Ofnow, "the non-statutory monitor of the Public Mood", her professor remarks: "You have an unfortunate tendency to overwrite. May I suggest you read fewer novels." Jacobson may be too clever for his own good, but he's not above mocking it.
The book is messy and baggy, but also splendidly unapologetic in its celebration of the messiness and bagginess of ordinary human life. Esme Nussbaum, the overwriting researcher, puts it best when she says of this nameless country's rulers that "they saw harmony as something you attained by leaving things out - contrariety and contradiction, argument, variety - and she saw it as something you achieved by keeping everything in." That could almost be Howard Jacobson's epitaph.
Even that sly little J pays dividends with an entirely unexpected twist on the final page.
The best way to get a handle on it all is to remember the scene in Woody Allen's film Annie Hall where the Jewish mother tries to explains why the family fasts during Passover. "We do it to atone for our sins." "What sins? I don't understand." "To be honest, neither do we."
Whether it comes through a strong Booker longlist to take the prize remains to be seen - its rage against anti-semitism masquerading as something more admirable may ultimately prove too controversial in the current political climate - but this unsettling meditation on totalitarian neuroses is sufficient testament to a writer who is, at the age of 71, producing some of his most powerful work.
Jonathan Cape, hdbk, 336 pages, £12.95
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350