J by Howard Jacobson, book review: Railing against society’s collective amnesia


Max Liu
Friday 15 August 2014 20:36 BST

One of the protagonists in Howard Jacobson’s new novel thinks she’s got her boyfriend figured out: “Ailinn knew how Kevern’s mind worked. You set it a problem and when it could come up with no answer, it came up with a joke.” Isn’t this what comic novelists do? Writing fiction is, according to Philip Roth, a form of problem solving, while Zadie Smith has observed that no decent novel lacks humour.

As Jacobson showed in his 2010 Man Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question, jokes are often the closest we get to finding answers to big problems of love, identity and loss. J, which is mystifying, serious and blackly funny, examines similar themes in a rural future which is a new departure for a writer who has satirised the tensions of contemporary urban life.

If good novels leave readers not knowing what to think then J, which has been long-listed for this year’s Man Booker, is very good indeed. At times, I felt so baffled that the question of whether or not I liked it seemed irrelevant. The moral weight of passages about Ailinn and Kevern’s opaque pasts, and the mysterious “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED”, dispelled initial reservations about the coherence of the narrative. The excursion to the Necropolis, capital of the grim country which characters are prohibited from leaving, is as eerily frustrating as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, while Kevern’s vision of his dead parents “on the train going east” recalls W G Sebald’s Austerlitz. Where Sebald’s title alludes to Auschwitz, Jacobson’s also refers to words which are notably absent from his novel: Judaism, Jewish, Jew.

Ailinn Solomons and Kevern “Coco” Cohen meet in Port Reuben, a fishing village populated by bawdy women and abrasive men: “They used to be wreckers, now they run gift shops.” J is elevated by the sense that something sinister is stalking Ailinn and Kevern. While discussing Moby Dick – “one of the few classic novels that had not been encouraged to drift out of print” – Ailinn says: “I call it a good day when I turn around and at least don’t see anything bad.” Kevern, who obsessively double-locks his front door, remembers his father warning him against pronouncing the letter “J”. Meanwhile, whispers about “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED”, and the anti-Semitic musings of Edward Everett Phineas Zermansky, a pompous art teacher, indicate that J takes place in the aftermath of a holocaust rather than an environmental cataclysm.

Like Moby Dick, J drags in places. A subplot involving murder and a Wagner-loving detective feels unnecessary, and Zermansky’s monologues test the reader’s patience. Jacobson’s comedies are always cerebral but J runs readers through a philosophical mill of blood and history, exposing the myriad ways that prejudice manifests itself. There’s insufficient patience for anything more than “rags-to-riches memoirs, cookbooks and romances” in the “compliant society” of J, which is culturally poorer than contemporary Britain but not unrecognisable. History books are hard to come by, although reading groups are permitted, and laws which forbid thinking about the past (“only one item over a hundred years old per household”) are enforced by a government organisation named “Ofnow”.

J rails against collective amnesia and moral consensus: “After the falling-out, the saying sorry. That was the way. They had all been taught it at school. Always say sorry.” Here “sorry” is meaningless, lip service in a culture which foments prejudice behind the veneer of political correctness, but there’s ambiguity too, especially when Ailinn’s friend, Esme, considers her differences with Ofnow: “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.”

Esme is instrumental in Ailinn and Kevern’s fate, but her way of reviving “variety” makes the reader wonder if Jacobson is satirising the desire for harmony. Are those who pursue it complicit in persecution? Do we define ourselves as much by who we are as by who we aren’t? When Ailinn asks Kevern how he’d feel if he “found out we are not together by an act of our wills alone”, Kevern answers: “Is anybody?” This painful comic relief arrives as mysteries unravel, leaving Kevern feeling like a stranger to himself: “This was a time to wonder whether he’d ever in his whole life understood a word that had been said to him.”

When Jacobson won the Booker in 2010, some commentators said he should have received the prize in 2006 for Kalooki Nights. The judges might be reluctant to reward J, which is deeper than The Finkler Question, only four years on from his last triumph, but you should read it. J shows that, for a writer working at the peak of his powers, with the themes of his imagined future very much part of our present, laughter in the dark is the only kind.

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