Howard Jacobson is a writer of consummate skill and his most recent novel with its shortest of all possible title J [London: Jonathan Cape, 2014] was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He won that prize in 2010 with the extremely witty and wonderfully funny The Finkler Question. Jacobson is very much a Jewish writer with Jewish characters, often it seems doppelgänger for the author, and Jewish themes and problems as the main strands of their narratives. However, he writes from a cultural rather than a religious perspective. So; what to make of J which one could say conforms to this pattern? That is a harder than usual question.
The story is set sometime in the future; perhaps in the third quarter of the 21st century but no time is actually specified. Much is left to the reader’s imagination and deduction in this as in other details. Jacobson is masterful in his hints and allusions that spark our curiosity and interest. Something pretty awful has happened, or has it? The characters refer to it as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.
The world changed while she wasn’t looking. One day the streets were quiet, the next the mob was out, shouting, burning, killing.
A very insular, almost xenophobic society has adopted a culture of forever saying sorry and of eschewing, by choice rather than edict, anything other than the bland and the benign. There is even a slightly sinister but comical Professor of the Benign Visual Arts. References back to the sort of things that used to be done provoke a wry smile.
As a little girl she’d read about a time when people wrote to one another by phone but wrote such horrid things that the practice had to be discouraged.
Whatever happened (if it did happen), it has resulted in everyone taking new family names, all sounding Jewish it seems. The reader is left to work out the reason: expiation, irony, double bluff even? Keeping reminders, souvenirs, anything from a more brutal past is not forbidden; it’s simply not the ‘done thing’ and the people are fearful of being found out for doing so. Everyone feels they are being watched, as indeed they are! There is an ignorance of the past and of its people.
‘It’s a great intellectual privilege to work in a library,’ she reminded him. ‘The Argentinian writer Borges was a librarian. The English poet Philip Larkin was a librarian.’
Kevin hadn’t heard of either of them.
‘All human life is here,’ she went on. ‘The best of it and the worst of it, mainly the worst. Books do that, they bring out the bad in readers if there’s bad already in them.’
Books do that? We’d better give them up! The two central characters, Kevin the wood turner who, like his father before him, makes love spoons and Ailinn who makes paper flowers do not seem to read and they are not ‘drawn’ to each other but rather, by some enigmatic outside influence, are pushed together. Their romance blossoms but there is a canker in the bud. Indeed, there is a canker in the whole post-some-possible-apocalypse society that leads on to the dramatic conclusion by way of some deep philosophical commentary.
Could there be another Holocaust? Could it happen here, less by design than by a lack of vigilance, in a sane, supposedly liberal and democratic society like ours? Well, we do not need to look far afield to find present-day examples of the seeds of such illogical hatreds stoked unconsciously and/or uncaringly in places where we might never have thought they could catch alight.
Read J, mark and inwardly digest what should become a book as important in the literary canon as Brave New World or even 1984 were in their time.