The funny thing about funny books winning prizes is how seriously people take it. When Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize in 2010, the timeworn issue of whether comic novels deserve such literary merit popped up once again. Well that novel proved beyond a doubt that the funny bone is firmly attached to our intellect. The enchanting tale of the friendship between three male Londoners, played out at the intersection between Jewish and Gentile spaces, was a sublime and worthy winner. It found Jacobson at the height of his powers, proving that he could write a touching, heartfelt story as emotionally involving as it was wittily waggish.
Ironically, Zoo Time, Jacobson's follow up, is focused on an author whose work has been felled by the whim of contemporary publishing. If The Finkler Question was acoustic, Zoo Time has plugged in and gone electric. It's an angry book. And, one might say, with good reason.
The book's narrator is Cheshire author Guy Ableman, a one-time manager of a fashion boutique in Wilmslow who swapped Donna Karan for tailoring fiction. His debut novel Who Gives a Monkey's?, a primate-meets-human melodrama set in Chester Zoo, was a surprise success but he is now in his forties, several books down and watching his career nose dive into the remainder bin. His crisis is magnified by his being married to the sharp-edged redhead Vanessa, herself an aspiring novelist, while remaining erotically infatuated with his mother-in-law, the deliciously named Poppy Eisenhower.
Poppy, Guy explains, is his consolation for the loss of his purpose. "By purpose, understand readers," he clarifies, "I wasn't the only one. No one had readers. But every writer takes the loss of readers personally. Those are your readers who have gone missing." Whether Guy will manage to get it on with Poppy, literally or in his novel-in-rumination, proves to be the slender dramatic fulcrum on which the story pivots.
Sex, Judaism and male ennui are the schticks with which Jacobson has beaten a very profitable drum over the years. Well if those themes were brought to a highly touching crescendo with The Finkler Question, in Zoo Time they recede to let a new, wrathful signature tune take over. For this is a tale about how we no longer value books and their careful conception and as a result have become a sadder, perhaps terminal, society.
I say terminal as Jacobson uses untimely death throughout this novel as the natural result of all this tweeting, Kindle-loaded, iPad-powered progression. Guy's first agent disappears in the Hindu Kush and then Merton, his delightfully melancholy long-time publisher, shoots himself at his desk because he can't publish the titles he wants. "None was suitable for three-for-two. None featured a vampire. None was about the Tudors. None could be marketed as a follow-up to The Girl Who Ate Her Own Placenta."
With fifty shades of atrocious writing constipating our bookshops, and our resignation at the diminishing standards of not just writing but editing, publishing and printing, one can understand Jacobson's lament. The author wears anger like a linen suit. It slips perfectly and lightly into the cadence of his prose, hanging off his pauses and punctuating his put downs. A little mild misanthropy is Jacobson's antidote to the great non-reading public. But then writers get the same short shrift. "It's a rule of the profession that novelists do not sleep with one another's wives or husbands," states Guy. "The reason being that you don't give a rival novelist the material for a book." Comedy is never as clever as when Howard Jacobson is on a roll and this book finds him barrelling.
It should be pointed out that Zoo Time is something of a reviewer-proof book. Any criticism that could be thrown its way is addressed textually, in the guise of criticisms thrown at Guy. In this way, Jacobson stretches out a safety net of self-awareness. Aren't novels about novelists as tedious as rock stars singing about going on tour? "I know when a writer's in trouble," Guy claims. "When he resorts to writing about writing." So does that make it OK here?
Ultimately, Zoo Time is less a novel than a proclamation. The scenario is as slim as Guy's chances with Poppy, and after the poignancy found in The Finkler Question, that can't help but leave a reader wanting. I wish Zoo Time had been written as a non-fiction comical treatise rather than fiction, which frankly demands more story. However, at one point Guy states: "You have occasionally to see your agent, as you have occasionally to see your publisher, but unless you are a writer of what the malignantly illiterate call 'stories' you always wish you hadn't." Well I guess that tells me.