Sunday, September 14, 2014

Reading Notes: J

This review is number 6 in my Man Booker Longlist challenge, and, as it transpires, no. 3 in the Shortlist Challenge. You can see links to the other reviews at the bottom of this post.

The Man Booker shortlist has now been announced, and it's as follows:
- To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent's Tail)
- J,  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
- The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
- How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

I'm planning to write it up for Global Comment, so I won't analyse it here. Suffice to say that it leaves me with only two to read to beat the prize announcement - Smith's and Mukherjee's books. I've started Smith's but so far am failing to be grabbed by it, and haven't felt like pushing on given my current subpar state of health (I have reverted, without the tiniest spark of guilt, to comfort reading, diving back into Bill Bryson, Golden Age detective fiction and Terry Pratchett, and pulling the covers over my literary head).

I did, however, finish reading Howard Jacobson's J over two weeks ago now, but it's taken a while for my feelings and thoughts about it to settle enough to attempt a review. Even with the passage of time, though, I'm not completely certain I have a handle on this one. Thus, if this review is a bit more tentative than is my wont, that's why!

Manifestly inaccurately described by its publishers as "a love story" (it is so, so not), is set in a near-future dystopia in which the two central characters, Kevern and Ailinn, occupy a very particular function in respect of the obstreperous society they are embedded within. The fact that they do in fact come to love each other is in no wise sweet, endearing or happy; indeed, it adds weight to the overall sourness of the conclusion. Indeed, nothing about this book is light or amusing or sweet; it's a real departure for Jacobson in this regard.

This is, to be blunt, a book about the aftermath of pogrom. More than that, it's a book that expounds fictionally Jacobson's central thesis that he expresses in essay form in When Will the Jews Be Forgiven the Holocaust? And that thesis amounts to this: Anti-Semitism is inherent, ingrained, in most societies, and Jewish people serve the psychological role of Other in a way that other Others (for want of a better term) do not. Therefore, pogroms are always and ever a risk.

J has been described by some reviewers as Orwellian in affect, and for once, I think the comparison has legs. There is a real ghost of 1984 running through this eerie, polemical text; the sense of warning, of big scary themes, and especially the surveilling and recording of divergence that runs underneath the action is highly reminiscent of that classic work. Jacobson's written style is more embellished than the very spare narrativity of Orwell, but the overall feel is very similar. This, to me, is a great strength of this book; although 1984 is not my favourite Orwell (that honour belongs to Animal Farm), I have always read it as an immensely powerful and important book.


I think most people's reaction to this book will be filtered by their level of comfort with polemic as fiction. By this I don't mean, do I, the reader, agree that all societies are anti-Semitic and that anti-Semitism is somehow different from all other forms of racial bias in important ways? Rather, what I mean is, do I, the reader, have the capacity to accept a novel that is essentially one long argument on its own terms, or is it just irritating? Actually the answer to both those questions will colour your reading of the book, truth be told.

In my case, the answer to the first question is: honestly, I don't know, but I am not any more persuaded of the veracity of it by the very hyperbolic style in this text than I was before I read it; and my answer to the second question is, not really. While I found the book gripping and generally stylistically accomplished, and I liked poor Ailinn a lot, overall, I thought it overreached itself and lost much of the power it could have had in trying to slam home its main point. This is something that Jacobson could've learned from Orwell, to be frank: less is more. Let the reader take the final step themselves, don't shove their head into the water trough and scream "DRINK!" in their ear.

I'm not surprised it's shortlisted, particularly, but I will be disappointed if it takes the prize over the much more complete achievements represented by both The Narrow Road to the Deep North and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (and possibly one or both of Smith and Mukherjee's books - time will tell.)

Other Man Booker reviews:
The Dog
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
The Wake
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

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