J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson

J a novel“Equipoise of hate…”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Set in a near-future society, this is superficially the story of two misfits who fall in love. But the society, a kind of benign dystopia, is one trying to find ways to prevent ‘what happened, if it happened’ from ever happening again. And whatever happened, happened as a result of anti-Semitism, which is the real subject of the book.

After what happened, all people have been given Jewish surnames, the study of history is strongly discouraged, art has been restricted to the inoffensive and unchallenging, and people are encouraged to go through a ritual of saying sorry, even when they can’t think of anything they need to be sorry about. All of this is designed to prevent the build-up of the kind of antagonism that led to what happened. Although the convention is to say ‘what happened, if it happened’, it’s pretty clear that something violently horrific did happen, but it happened mainly in the cities and our story is set in a small village on the coast, possibly of Cornwall, where probably no-one was directly involved. The problem is that the plan doesn’t seem to be working so well – husbands and wives are becoming violent towards each other, friends and acquaintances are brutalising each other, and murder is on the rise. And our two main protagonists, Kevern and Ailinn, feel out of place – Kevern irrationally, (perhaps), fearful each time he leaves home that someone will break in, and Ailinn haunted by dreams in which she plays the part of the whale constantly running from an undefined Ahab.

On account of their innate aggressiveness, songs of that sort were no longer played on the console. Not banned – nothing was banned exactly – simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude.

This is an odd book that so very nearly works brilliantly, but just misses. The structure is unbalanced – the entire first half is filled with allusion and mystery with the reader struggling, somewhat like the characters, to work out what happened and why the society isn’t working. The second half clarifies everything, but almost becomes too clear – it begins to feel a bit like a political statement rather than a novel in parts. I found it a little problematic in that, in its desire to show the repeating horrors of anti-Semitism, it comes close to suggesting that there are only two types of people in the world – Jews and those who hate them. Anti-Gentilism? The suggestion seems to be that, in order to maintain an equilibrium in society, we must have someone to hate, and it’s easier to hate someone to whom we have already done wrong, hence the Jews are the eternal target. It is satirical, but somehow not quite satirical enough to justify the over-simplification of the message.

But the shouts and smell of smoke had a powerful effect on me. I don’t say they excited me, but they gave a sort of universality to what I was feeling. I am who I am because I am not them – well, I was not alone in feeling that. We were all who we were because we were not them. So why did that translate into hate? I don’t know, but when everyone’s feeling the same thing it can appear to be reasonableness.

The quality of the prose is excellent, and in the early part Jacobson has a good deal of fun with today’s popular culture, from jazz being banned because improvisation should be discouraged, to artists being encouraged to paint only pretty landscapes. But the humour doesn’t always fit well with the overall tone, and the satire becomes rather unsubtle as the book progresses. The characterisation has a feeling of unreality about it – each one feels more like a representation of a part of this society rather than a real person. This works fine in the context of the book, but it prevents the reader from feeling much emotional involvement with the two lead characters. In fact, given the subject matter, the balance of the book is surprisingly weighted away from emotionalism towards a colder intellectualism – though this is not a bad thing, I feel.

Howard Jacobson
Howard Jacobson

The ambiguity of the first half worked better for me than the more didactic second half. The government is invisible, represented only by those who spy on others. But there is a pervading feeling that everyone is being monitored and that even the smallest infractions of the new social code will be punished, though how is left deliberately vague – that very vagueness being the most sinister aspect of it. There are shades of Brave New World here, in the way the people are controlled via seemingly benign means to keep them happy; and of 1984, in the suppression and distortion of history and truth. Although ultimately this book doesn’t have quite the profundity or power of either of these, it’s still an interesting and thought-provoking read that deserves its place on last year’s Booker shortlist.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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31 thoughts on “J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson

  1. Hmm, don’t think it’s one for me, although – as ever – it’s an excellent review, FF. Jacobson always emphasizes his Jewishness in his fiction, and can be very funny, like in The Finkler Question, but sounds like this one doesn’t quite work for you. Me neither, I’d imagine – probably a bit hard-going for me, I’d probably give up on it!

  2. What an odd novel! And ‘equipoise’ is even odder. But of course I knew what it meant. And I still do.

    Stellar Review! I love when you get all critic-like. And it’s cool–probably because I can’t think like a critic, even though I’d like to try some time.

    Imagine banning Jazz in a book called J! That’s just not fair. Bet you liked that part, though! *maybe growls*

    Well… *laughs* Am I allowed to say something or not, dadblameit?!

    • Haha! One thing I did like about it was his use of words – equipoise is lovely, isn’t it, and I loved the desuetude quote. I may adopt both of those words…

      Aw, thank you! A stellar! *smiles bigly* Am I critic-like? Oh, dear, are you sure that’s cool?

      *laughs* I bet they didn’t ban Kenny though! *snorts*

      *laughs lots* Go for it! He’s way too famous to visit the blog! Surely…

      • I was going to add that word too! But I didn’t want to look…to dull, you know Of course I know all those words!

        That’s very cool! And also scary, I must admit. Which means it’s cool. I wish I could be a critic about things like that! You should teach me.

        They had to, dadblameit, since he’s smooth jazz! And don’t you go saying he’s not!

        Well…then…he’s very mad about something. I think the person who’s taking the picture must be…ugly.

        • Me too! At least I did once I looked them up!

          Nah, your rips are far more enjoyable – and insightful! It would never have occurred to me to use the word ‘noodles’ in a P&P review, for instance, and I probably wouldn’t even have spotted the length of Ben Hur’s arms…

          *preserves a diplomatic silence*

          *chuckles* I reckon he’s trying to hypnotise a frog…

          • You have a better memory!

            *laughing* Well, the noodle thing always bothered me. And Lew Wallace made a point–and I mean a point–about the length of that fellows arms!

            *shocked face* Pat Metheny snob!

            Or, that’s what’s been done to him!

  3. I can’t wait until next year when I can have the chance to read some fo the books you review. This one sounds really intriguing, But, alas, Starfleet beckons…

    • Haha! Sometimes I’d rather be reading Star Trek! In fact, when reading particularly miserable books I often find myself muttering ‘Beam me up, Scottie’…

  4. Despite having looked at this book having read your review I am fairly sure I’d hate it, nothing annoys me more than reading a book that doesn’t join together properly. Since half of my heritage is Jewish I don’t recognise the sentiments expressed in society either so that would annoy me too although I did like your summing up of this point 🙂

    • Yes, the sudden change in style at the halfway point was odd. I might be doing him an injustice over the suggesting that all non-Jews are anti-Semitic. It possibly wasn’t what he meant to convey – I’d hope it wasn’t – but that’s how it came over to me. And I fear that kind of attitude just seems to make any divisions worse…

  5. Hmmmm, what to do! To read or not to read, that is the question! 🙂 I might have to skip this one for now. Great review, as always.

  6. This sounds like a most interesting book, but definitely not for me. As I read your review I was thinking ‘1984’ – which is a book I love – but Orwell captured the concept so brilliantly other books in that vein always feel like a pale imitation. I will be honest, I had a nasty taste in my mouth just reading the review so the book itself would be a trial, no doubt! But then, you know me and my love of quirky, cheerful tales – horses for courses and all that! Great review, though.

    • Yes, this was nowhere near as good as 1984. One of the main differences being that Orwell didn’t concentrate on one group – his dystopia affected everyone. Plus his society was so much more believable than this one. I didn’t like the divide Jacobson drew between Jews and everyone else – no more healthy an attitude than the anti-Semitism he was criticising, I feel. I’m guessing he didn’t really mean for that to be how it came over – but it did, to me anyway.

      • That was the feeling I got from your review and what stuck in my throat was that there are an awful lot oppressed groups out there and to focus on just one in that way seems a bit blinkered. That said, the Jews have had an awful time of it throughout history and continue to do so but they are not alone in that. Besides, if people are prone to prejudice it it unlikely to focused just on one group – the fact that only the Jewish community is targeted is a bit too much of a stretch for me to accept. I guess it is important that books like this are written as a general warning to society but I don’t think this is one I can swallow, sadly. A shame because it sounds like it is well written in many respects. Now then – where’s my wine?

        • Yes, that was what bothered me too. I know he was making a point and it was satire, but I couldn’t help feeling that hate is not as restricted as he suggests. And man’s inhumanity to man doesn’t only go in one direction. Oops! In danger of a political rant coming on now… pass the wine, quick!

  7. It’s an interesting premise – very Brave New World, as you say, so shame it doesn’t quite gel. Still, it’s always a relief when I read a review of yours and don’t want to rush out and get the book instantly!

    • That’s a good way of looking at it – although I have the same problem with YOUR reviews – and Cleo’s, and Lady F’s, and Elena’s, and Frizbot’s – I’ve got a fatal “sample” of Mind Of Winter, so I’ll be starting that tonight (and trying not to click the “read full title” button, at least until the Double Dog Dare ends!!)

    • Haha! Snap! Yes, there was so much I liked about his writing in this one, but it just felt unbalanced and not convincing enough in the end. Still, I’ll be interested to read more of his stuff…

  8. t was short-listed for the Booker (or whatever we are calling it this week) but I came to the conclusion that I had already read a life-time’s worth of dystopias. After reading your review, I think I made the right decision.

    • It wasn’t the most convincing dystopia I’ve read, that’s for sure. Last year was so poor for lit fic though (in my opinion) that it probably deserved it’s Booker nomination – damning with faint praise!

  9. Interesting take on the subject. Not sure I like the focus on just one group – but it is interesting idea-wise.

    • Yes, I felt it was a narrow viewpoint, though he was obviously making a specific point. But by focusing on just the one group I felt he undermined his own argument a bit…

  10. “a kind of benign dystopia” is an interesting way to describe it. I am currently reading only things I really want to see (except for that one book I’m writing about Hard Core Poverty and how to survive it). And the picture books I read to my granddaughter.

    • You’re writing a book?? I’m learning something new about you every day at the moment!

      I only read things I really fancy too – sadly they don’t always work out as expected! 😉

      • Oh dear…my post must have been a bit skewed. I’m writing about a book that a woman wrote about Hard Core Poverty – it is about how to live when your are poor. She has some good ideas, but at my age and having spent my life in the not-so-wealthy or even close area, I already know a lot of what she is selling.

        • Haha! My misunderstanding! Yes, I’m sure she probably has some helpful tips, but I guess we all just have to find our own way through the worst patches in the end, and hope they won’t last forever.

          • Don’t know about the Scots, but Americans prefer to wring their hands and whine in the hopes of someone bailing them out. However, I do agree with you.

            • I find it hard to shake off my careful ways, even now I’m no longer terribly badly off! I hate being wasteful. My Dad used to tell us about an elderly man whose family we’re friendly with, now dead, who lived at the other end of the island, and who, despite owning 30,000 acres of land, and having been chairman of Southampton FC, still did things like boil the kettle in the morning, and keep the hot water in a flask for use throughout the day! That’s just a TAD obsessive, but when I consider the chap’s age – he waved off the Titanic, as a small boy – then he obviously lived through the Depression years, so possibly knew what poverty really was. I think it’d be a hard thing to forget, if you’d lived through times of not enough to eat, no matter how rich you went on to become!

            • That is probably a lot of it. I boarded in a woman’s house for awhile, and she lived through the Great Depression. Another girl boarded there and she decided that we needed a dishwasher. One morning I went to unload the dishwasher and discovered that she had put a sheet of aluminum foil on top of the racks. I knew that she saved everything and re-purposed a lot of things, but that was a wonder for sure.

              My generation has lost the concept of frugality. It is a virtue, and rare. We grew up in a time of relative peace. The economy is shaky now. and so many of us have forgotten how to practice frugality.

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