Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Funny, clever, subversive: a literary dystopia takes shape in Howard Jacobson's J

J by Howard Jacobson J (14 August 2014) by Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010 with The Finkler Question; J - described as both 'a dystopian novel like no other' and 'like no other novel Howard Jacobson has written', along with platitudes like 'thought-provoking and life-changing' - is on the longlist for this year's prize. When I read the premise of J, I assumed it would be a serious dystopia, especially since the blurb makes comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. (Actually it says 'J is a novel to be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World', which almost put me off reading it at all - I hate it when pronouncements like that are forced on the reader, and this one seemed a particularly foolish and grand example since the books mentioned are generally regarded as classics.) But, while it matures into something approximating this by the final chapters, it actually starts as a much stranger and more light-hearted mixture than I was led me to believe. This threw me off a bit until quite a way into the book, although I suppose it shouldn't really have surprised me after the strong element of humour in The Finkler Question, and the author's reputation for comic writing. J is also an unconventional love story, with a blossoming relationship between two of the main characters, Kevern and Ailinn, forming the basis for the plot.

There is a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, but it's a subtle one. Society is altered in some ways that are minor, but odd enough to be disconcerting; in other ways not at all. It is mentioned more than once that 'the past is a foreign country', rarely discussed, an ethos enforced by Orwellian slogans (or perhaps the logical conclusion of 'keep calm and carry on' mania) such as 'yesterday is a lesson we can learn only by looking to tomorrow'. Consequently, much classic literature and music has been forgotten - or at least is not consumed publicly - as with many, many things here, there is no explicit law against it, it just isn't done. There is some sort of taboo around the letter J, which is rarely used and which Kevern cannot pronounce without making a gesture - covering his lips with his fingers. Digital technology seems to have died out, so in some ways this feels like a historical novel or one about a remote part of the world isolated from modern society. (Although when the characters leave their home town, Port Reuben, and visit 'the capital', there's more of a typical dystopian vibe - city-dwellers are attired in colourful costumes that sound similar to the ones worn by the upper echelon of society in The Hunger Games (I'm basing this on the films, as I haven't read the books) and once-grand hotels limp onward in a state of dilapidation.) Love is championed above all things, and constant apology is encouraged, but adultery and violence within relationships are common for both genders. Above all of this looms the influence of an event only referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, a concept just as frustratingly opaque to the reader as it is for the characters. It has the significance of some apocalyptic disaster, yet the secrecy surrounding any discussion of it, not to mention the uncertainty about whether it even took place, makes it seem impossible that this could be the case.

In amongst all this, the relationship that develops between Kevern and Ailinn is so dysfunctionally whimsical it feels as though it's straight out of some quirky-hipster-romance story - something like Q: A Love Story or The Girl With Glass Feet. With his paranoia, rather pathetic nature and morbid romanticism, Kevern definitely shares numerous traits with Julian, the protagonist of The Finkler Question, while Ailinn occasionally veers a little too close to MPDG territory. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, I felt like I was reading some kind of farcical comedy. Larger-than-life small-town characters have noisy affairs and brawl in the streets. Giving a member of the opposite sex a brutish kiss is a common practice, a disturbing expression of sexual aggression - but the fact that this act is still known as 'snogging' makes it read as amusing. Even murder has something colourful and comic about it and doesn't quite seem real. It is only later that these strangely, and sometimes uncomfortably, funny elements, converge and a darker, more serious narrative emerges. The story takes a new turn, focusing more heavily on the reasons why Kevern is being observed by an eccentric colleague (whose diary makes up part of the book), the secrets Ailinn's 'companion' - half housemate, half foster mother - may be hiding. Similarly, while I didn't feel that the relationship between Ailinn and Kevern ever quite transcended its twee foundations, it does become apparent as the story progresses that it has a greater significance than appearances suggest - which in itself makes it less annoying. This is a book in which threads really do come together slowly, but when they do come together, they make sense of so much.

J is, like The Finkler Question, essentially a novel about Jewishness; it is also, indirectly and abstractly, a novel about the Holocaust. This is not something that is made explicit at the start. Even going into the book knowing that this is the case, it is initially difficult to link the characters and their circumstances directly to these themes without feeling that you are clutching at straws, or shaping things to make them fit. It's especially disconcerting, if WHAT HAPPENED is the Holocaust or something like it, that the characters all have Jewish surnames - until you discover the reason for this. The humour and oddness of the first half of J work to obfuscate the real direction of the story in the same way that bland ballads, saying sorry, quaint and unnecessary jobs, sex and petty crime distract the population of Port Reuben from any public analysis, apportioning of blame or questioning of the past. This makes the eventual unfolding of the truth, achieved partly through explanation within the story and partly through gradual realisation on the part of the reader, all the more powerful.

There is something richer and more rewarding about J than much literary fiction - that element of light-heartedness also carries over into the language and wordplay - but it's still easy to read. It's a story you can (but don't have to) think about in order to read between the lines; the first half in particular could be read as a typical dystopian tale, and it may not mean the same thing to all readers. Its speculative aspect means that, although it discusses a lot of the themes typical of Booker nominees and novels by big-name authors of literary fiction - identity, memory, the power of history etc - it does so in an entirely original fashion. In a time when bestseller charts and awards lists are still saturated with fiction about WWII and its aftermath to the point that you wonder what else can be said about the subject, this approach makes it far more memorable.

Having finished J, I am still not entirely convinced by the comparisons to Orwell and Huxley - but I am far closer to being convinced than I was at the start of the book. Although I don't think any novel is ever really 'life-changing', it is certainly thought-provoking, and enormously clever; it plays with the reader's perceptions and subverts them, not just for the sake of doing so, but in order to draw parallels with the story itself. I really enjoyed this book, but more than that, I was impressed by it. It's also much better than The Finkler Question, and would be a worthier Booker winner.

I received an advance review copy of J from the publisher through NetGalley.

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