The Extract: 'Zoo Time', By Howard Jacobson

Jacobson's first novel since the Man Booker-winning 'The Finkler Question', is an uproarious comedy of literary - and marital - strife. In this extract, our writer-hero dines with his wife.

Vanessa hated it when I started a new book. She saw it as me getting one over her who hadn't started a new book because she hadn't finished, or indeed started, the old one. But she also hated it when I hadn't started a new book, because not starting a new book made me querulous and sexually unreliable. At least when I was writing a new book she knew where I was. The downside of that being that as soon as she knew where I was she wished I were somewhere else.

In fact, my question hid a lie; I hadn't started a new book, not in the sense of starting writing a new book. I had mouth-written a hundred new books, I just didn't believe in any of them. It wasn't personal, it wasn't only my books I didn't believe in, it was books full stop. If I was over, it was because the book was over. But Vanessa wasn't aware of the full extent of the crisis. She saw me trudge off to my study, heard the keys of my computer making their dead click and assumed I was still pouring forth my soul abroad like Keats's logorrhoeic nightingale.

I even affected high spirits. 'I'm sitting on top of the world,' I sang, breaking for tea.

'No you're not,' she shouted from her room.

She was contradictory to her soul. 'I did it my way,' I sang the morning after our wedding. 'No you didn't,' she said, not even looking up from her newspaper.

If my singing irritated her, the sound of my writing drove her to the edge of madness. But so did the sound of my not writing. This was part of the problem of our marriage. The other part was me. Not what I did, what I was. The fact of me. The manness of me.

'You, you, you,' she said for the umpteenth time that night. It was like a spell; if she said the word often enough maybe I, I, I would vanish in a vapour of red wine.

We were out to dinner. We were always out to dinner. Along with everybody else. Dinner was all there was left to do.

It was one of those restaurants where the doorman comes round to greet the diners he knows. Be ignored by the doorman and it's plain you're no one. He doffed his top hat to me. We shook hands. I held his long enough for everybody to see just how well we were acquainted. It even occurred to me to call him 'Sir' and hold my hand out for a tip.

After he'd passed on we resumed where we'd left off. 'You were saying,' I said. 'Me, me, me . . .'

'You think you're the only person out there not getting what you deserve. Do you think I get what I deserve? The spectacle of you wittering on about the extinction of the art of reading makes me sick. What about the extinction of the art of writing? Dirty-minded shopkeeper looking for sex in Wilmslow writes about dirty-minded shopkeeper looking for sex in Wilmslow. Christ, with a subject like that, you're lucky you've got a reader!'

'I wasn't a shopkeeper, Vee, I was a fashion consultant.'

'Fashion consultant, you! Whoever consulted you on fashion?'

I wanted to say 'The women of Wilmslow', which would have been the truth, but in the context of this argument lacked gravitas.

'My advice was frequently heeded,' I said instead. 'Though not, I accept, by you.'

'You looked after your crazy mother's shop and drooled over her customers. I saw you, remember. I was one of the customers. And as for heeding your advice – why would I want to look like a Cheshire trollop?'

She had a point.

She never didn't have a point. It was why I respected her. I'd say it was why I loved her but it felt as though I loved her in spite of her always having a point.

I scanned the restaurant. A psychologist might have supposed I was unconsciously searching for the Cheshire trollop Vanessa had refused to be, but in fact I was wondering if there was anyone here I recognised. It calmed me to think that rich and famous people had nothing better to do with their evening than I had. Ditto less rich and famous people who would be finding it calming to see me there. It's possible I was looking for them too.

Vanessa was still ranting about readers and how I should count myself lucky that I had any at all. 'If you had only one that would still be one more than you deserve and certainly one more than I've got.'

I didn't point out that the reason she didn't have a reader was that she hadn't written anything for anyone to read. And I hadn't been saying I was the only person out there not getting what I deserved. I'd been saying – well, what had I been saying? No more than that the roof was falling in on all of us. No one was getting what he (sorry: 'he/she') deserved, unless he ('he/she') was getting more than he ('they') deserved. There was, in the new scheme of things, no proportionality of reward. Either you got too much or you got too little. Which was a universal, not a particular complaint. But Vanessa didn't believe I had a right to voice a complaint of any sort. I was one of the lucky ones. I was published . . .

And there you have it. Like the rest of the world, Vanessa wanted to be a published writer. She was the promise of the future: no readers, all writers. She'd seen me become a writer, watched the empty pages fill, been present during the initial excitement of publication, and if I could become a published writer, a man shorter than her even when she wasn't wearing seven-inch heels, a man who said foolish things, fucked foolish girls, stole his own books from Oxfam and all his best ideas from her, why couldn't she? Hadn't she written a sample chapter? Hadn't an important agent said she had what it took?

'That was ten years ago,' I reminded her.

I didn't mention that the agent had his arm up her skirt while he was telling her she had what it took, or that he had since slashed his wrists – though there was no provable connection between those two events. It wasn't tact that stopped me; Larry's suicide was simply not worth mentioning. You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people in publishing still breathing.

'Well, what time do I have to finish a novel? I'm always having to listen to the racket of you belting out yours.'

When I wasn't defending my right to make a racket, I was sorry for her. I could see she was at her wits' end, that non-production was making her ill. It was as though, without a novel on the go, her life had no meaning. Sometimes she would put her fists between her breasts, like a mother ripped from her babies, or a Medea who had killed her babies, and beg me to be quiet so she could think. I was killing her, she told me. And I believed it. I was killing her.

She kept asking me to leave the house to write, to build a shed at the bottom of the garden, to rent an office, to go away for a year. It was the noise my writing made, the computer waking – 'Boing!'– to my presence every morning, the hammering at the dead keys. She was more jealous of my computer than she'd been of Philippa. Sometimes I thought I heard her crouching outside my door, to punish herself with the noise of the detested keyboard. On those occasions I typed gobbledegook at speed to goad her still more. It wasn't my intention to torment her into greater extremes of jealousy, it was my intention to torment her into getting back to her book. In this I was as crazed as everybody else. Books were over but writing them was the only thing I valued. So long as she didn't have a novel to her name, yes, Vanessa was a dead woman...

A question that was sometimes asked: What had a woman as beautiful and confident as Vanessa, who could have married a rock star or a banker or a presenter on breakfast television – who could, for God's sake, have been a presenter on breakfast television – seen in me?

The answer I invariably gave: 'Words.'

In the century of the dying of the word there were still women who lusted after men to whom words came easily. And vice versa, of course, though the men who didn't have words themselves were less likely to value them, and were certainly far more frightened of them, than the women. Give a man a word or two more than the common and he'll always find a woman to revere him. Fill a woman's mouth with words and she'll scare the living daylights out of the other sex. Nothing but bags of nerves, the other sex.

Every man I knew, a quivering wreck the moment a woman spoke.

Something else that was dying – men.

As both a reverer of words in men and a woman whose own words put men off – I'm talking about the words that flowed from her, not the novels she was never going to assemble from them – Vanessa considered herself lucky to have found me. She never said as much to my face, but I understood that to be the reason she had married me in the first place, the reason she had stayed with me and the reason she once flattened a young reviewer whose name was all initials and who had spoken ill of my prose style.

There's loyalty for you. But when I thanked her for it afterwards she denied it had anything to do with me. 'You qua you deserve all you get,' she said. 'It was your gift I was defending.'

'I am my gift,' I told her.

She coughed and quoted Frieda Lawrence at me. 'Never trust the teller,' she said, 'trust the tale.'

'That's DH Lawrence,' I corrected her.

'Oh yeah!' She laughed wildly.

But her point remained the same, whichever Lawrence she was quoting. The initialled reviewer had traduced the tale, the fragile thing of words spun only incidentally by me, as the farmer only incidentally grows the wheat. (And stolen from Vanessa, anyway.) That was why she trod on his spectacles: so that he would know how it felt to be the word, the wounded logos, kicked when it was down.

Things dying can have a voluptuous beauty. Only think of the dying of the day or the dying of the summer. So it was with the word. The sicker it grew, the more livid it turned, the more people of an over-refined and morbid disposition fell in love with its putrefaction.

Would I be around to see it finally pass away? I wasn't sure, but I could imagine the scene, like the burning of a Viking hero at sea – the sky, as bloody as a reviewer's nose, painted by JMW Turner; the last of the verbalising men looking into the self-combusting sun, hoarsely mouthing their goodbyes; the women tearing their hair and wailing. Foremost among them, atremble in lacy weeds such as those she'd worn to see off poor Merton, my Vanessa.

Magnificent in mourning.

Howard Jacobson's 'Zoo Time' is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99)

The Interview: Howard Jacobson is not his doom-laden protagonist. Still, he has his worries... Boyd Tonkin talks to him

Howard Jacobson has just turned 70. But he musn't grumble. "It's the first birthday when I haven't gone to pieces. Maybe it's so far advanced now – the age thing – that it's futile to complain. " He passed the landmark with his wife and family in his native Manchester, and enjoyed it. In fact, this autumn feels like a "good time" for him, with audiences at festivals keen to laugh along with the acerbic literary – and sexual – comedy of his twelfth novel, Zoo Time.

The book, his first novel since The Finkler Question took the Man Booker Prize in 2010 with its darker-hued investigations into Jewishness, identity and mortality, creates a self-lacerating writer-narrator, Guy Ableman, with a career in freefall. Guy greets the apparent decay of literature, reading and culture in general with an almost apocalyptic glee.

Jacobson began Zoo Time before the Booker victory had ended a lean patch during which falling advances and apathetic publishers had soured his view of the state of fiction. Now, it goes without saying that Ableman is not Jacobson – indeed, readers who confuse author and character remain a bête noire of the latter – but the Independent columnist's published opinions do (shall we say?) slightly overlap on occasions with Guy's.

When he returned to Zoo Time, "What interested me was how quickly I was able to get back into it – how quickly that retrospective bitterness kicked in." With the prize, "I had an extraordinary stroke of luck in hitting a panel who got what I was trying to do. It didn't change what I felt about bookshops closing, or people fulminating on the internet, or turning up at book groups to be told that people couldn't identify with your characters."

Guy, while not stretched in comic anguish along the sides of an erotic triangle that involves both his wife and mother-in-law, rails entertainingly against dumbing-down on every front. His creator adopts a slightly more sanguine approach to the condition of the book. "On one level, everything seems to be very healthy. The state of writing is OK; it's the state of reading that we should worry about.'' Surely, ever since the satires of Juvenal in ancient Rome, disgruntled authors have castigated the vulgarity of their times? "I don't think that invalidates anything. Literature should always complain about literature. That's one way it shows its health."

So what's new? For a start, the "triumphalism of technology" that mistakes the advance of gadgetry for the progress of culture. Again, "I can't remember a time when the bestseller lists looked so bleak. But we might just be passing through this phase of soft eroticism – we've had this before in the shopping-and-fucking days."

Other fresh hells, mostly online, gape. "I don't remember, when I first started writing, that people said such dumb things. Maybe that was because there was no internet – you didn't encounter the reader as you do now." He believes "The idea of what a book is has deteriorated over the past 25 years," an erosion he ascribes in part to "the expostulatory nature of discourse on the internet". Online, crude assertion shouts; irony and ambiguity only whisper. Too many opinion-mongers fail to grasp that "a novel is not something to be agreed or disagreed with".

Literary education shoulders its share of the blame. "In the days when I was teaching English literature in universities and polytechnics, it was very rare to find a first-year student who was as badly educated in how to read a book as those people shooting their mouths off on Amazon". For Jacobson, "One of the reasons the teaching of English in schools went so wrong was the ideology that you must give kids books that reflect their interests." So if you were a working-class boy, read about football. "This was just so insulting. It was meant to be benign, but all it did was disinherit children."

As for Guy, we don't have to agree with his hilariously dyspeptic scorn. His begetter often doesn't: "My ambition is that the reader should be able to feel, 'This fellow is preposterous'." Fiction should always put the possible other case. "The novel is not just a different thing from ideology," Jacobson argues, noting that Tolstoy first conceived of Anna Karenina as an exposé of upper-class depravity. "The justification for the novel is that it's ideology's enemy. Whatever you think, the novel will do something different. Whatever the political, moral or ideological point you wish to make, if you're a writer who is any good – then the novel will contradict it."

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