Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson

I’m going to be posting a few of the reviews I’ve written over the years for the Sunday Business Post, starting with this one – of Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time (2012).

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Howard Jacobson is not, at heart, a satirist. He is a comic tragedian, like Philip Roth (whom he so admires). He has written one masterpiece: the novel Kalooki Nights (2006). Set among Manchester’s Jewish community, it is about the cartoonist Max Glickman’s attempts to understand why his friend Manny murdered his parents by gassing them in their beds. It is a raging, torrential performance, powerfully moving, deeply felt. It is also – and this is not incidental – extremely funny. (“Gassed?” Max demands of his appalled mother, when she tells him about Manny’s crime. “You don’t say “gassed” to a Jew if you can help it.”) Jacobson’s other novels tend towards the effortfully “comic.” In much of his fiction – notably in the Booker-winning The Finkler Question (2010) Jacobson has flouted, to his cost, one of literature’s great paradoxical truisms, the one that goes: the funniest books are the ones that are saddest at heart.

Certainly Zoo Time, Jacobson’s new one, is a pretty unfunny book. Heavily voice-driven, like all of Jacobson’s work, it is narrated by Guy Ableman, a fortyish novelist who divides his hours between fretting over the state of publishing and lusting after his mother-in-law, Poppy. The thematic link between these two preoccupations is never clearly drawn, though we do learn that Guy plans to write a novel about a novelist who wants to sleep with his mother-in-law. In cod-meta style, Jacobson lets us know how thin the ice looks from where he’s skating: “[T]his is when you know you’re in deep shit as a writer – when the heroes of your novels are novelists worrying that the heroes of their novels are novelists who know they’re in deep shit.” Quite.

Poppy is “in her middle sixties,” which is, Guy remarks, “[a] wonderful age for a woman who has kept an eye on herself.” Poppy’s daughter, Vanessa, is forever upbraiding Guy for his failings as a husband. She gets burdened with lines like, “This isn’t a green light for one of your literary flings.” On holiday in Australia, Guy and Poppy enjoy a brief erotic frisson. Guy resolves to elaborate upon this situation in his new book. Oddly, he believes that stand-up comedians have now replaced novelists as the guardians of the old épater les bourgeoises aesthetic. So he makes the hero of his novel a stand-up comedian who sleeps with his mother-in-law. “I had it in me to write the seamiest novel of an admittedly exceedingly tame century.” (A peculiar remark, this. You could call our young century many things, but “exceedingly tame” probably shouldn’t be one of them.) Guy believes that his book will install him finally and forever in the Canon (Male Sexuality Division), right up there with D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller. “She was sixty-six and out of bounds,” Guy declares. “I’d show them fucking transgression!”

How funny you find all of this stuff is, I suppose, largely a matter of taste. More straightforwardly unamusing (and shrill) are Guy’s many thoughts on the condition of the world of letters. Great tracts of Zoo Time are given over to an ubi sunt lament for the lost Golden Age of When Howard Jacobson Was Young and Publishing His Early Novels. “Reading as a civilised activity was over,” Guy insists. The barbarians have gathered at the Gates of Literature, and Guy must resist such ignominious encroachments as “library closures, Oxfam, Amazon, eBooks, iPads, Oprah, apps, Richard and Judy, Facebook, Formspring, Yelp, three-for-two, the graphic novel, Kindle, [and] vampirism.”

Yes, books are going down the tube, and Guy is here to preside at the wake. At a book club (where all the readers are women), he is asked: “Why do you hate women so much?” His editor, Merton Flak, has committed suicide. “Even those publishers who still had writers, even those writers who still had readers, knew the game was up.” There is much exhilarating crankiness in these pages, much justified bewilderment at the lurid grotesqueries of contemporary life. But Jacobson’s prose is not really up to the job of withstanding the tide of junk culture that threatens to sweep Guy Ableman away. When he attempts a satirical sally, we get stuff like this: “Displayed face out on [the bookshop] shelves was a new TV tie-in cookery book by Dahlia Blade, a bulimic Kabbalist from an all-vegan girl band.” This is merely a catalogue of thin exaggerations: the language is not nearly sharp enough to draw blood.

Zoo Time is a pessimistic book. But this time out we are dealing with the shallow pessimism of the grouch, rather than the resonant fatalism of the tragedian. Jacobson’s voice remains a marvellous instrument, but he has not, here, come close to replicating the dark laughter he attained to in the finest pages of Kalooki Nights.

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