Jewish Jane Austen’ sub­verts the mother-in-law trope

Zoo Time

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alan Gold Alan Gold’s

By Howard Ja­cob­son Blooms­bury, 376pp, $29.99

HOWARD Ja­cob­son’s Zoo Time con­tin­ues to el­e­vate the an­ar­chis­tic sense of hu­mour he has dis­played in his many pre­vi­ous works into what is ap­proach­ing a genre all of its own. Ja­cob­son’s is a lit­er­ary art form based on emas­cu­la­tion, Jewish­ness and dom­i­neer­ing women, a satire as cor­us­cat­ing as it is dev­as­tat­ing. Of­ten called ‘‘ the British Philip Roth’’, he prefers ‘‘ the Jewish Jane Austen’’, which may sound os­ten­ta­tious but his body of work puts him in the first rank of con­tem­po­rary writ­ers.

With Zoo Time and his pre­vi­ous novel, the Man Booker prize-win­ning The Fin­kler Ques­tion, Ja­cob­son joins comedic writ­ers such as Eve­lyn Waugh, Michael Frayn and Joseph Heller, to name a few, in defin­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween writ­ing hu­mor­ously and be­ing in­ci­sively witty.

The hu­mour in Zoo Time is un­der­writ­ten by the wis­dom of a per­cep­tive, in­tel­li­gent and re­bel­lious mind, and the re­sults are dev­as­tat­ingly funny and pen­e­trat­ing. The Fin­kler Ques­tion broke reli­gious bound­aries and ruf­fled eth­nic feath­ers; this novel ex­tends Ja­cob­son’s range into are­nas in­volv­ing sex­ual free­dom, the na­ture of books, the as­sault of the in­ter­net — and anger man­age­ment.

Zoo Time is writ­ten for authors and their read­ers, for book­sellers los­ing cus­tomers to the se­duc­tion of the in­ter­net and for pub­lish­ers search­ing for rel­e­vance in a world that overnight has re­jected the legacy of Guten­berg.

It’s also a book for men who fan­ta­sise about a re­la­tion­ship with an older woman, at­trac­tive and ex­pe­ri­enced. This may be a com­mon­place fan­tasy, but here there’s a twist: the woman the cen­tral char­ac­ter fan­ta­sises about is his wife’s mother. So much for the stage comedian’s mother-in-law rou­tine.

Ja­cob­son cre­ates an in­trigu­ing melange of themes, con­cepts and tech­niques as pro­fes­sional empti­ness meets sex­ual fan­tasy head-on. His pro­tag­o­nist, writer Guy Able­man, had con­sid­er­able suc­cess with his first novel, Who Gives a Mon­key’s?, but now finds him­self search­ing sonal rel­e­vance.

Dry of ideas in his writ­ing ca­reer, and in­deed life it­self, he des­per­ately searches for a theme for his next book to prove he is not a one-hit won­der.

Be­fore find­ing lit­er­ary fame, Guy man­aged a dress shop, and this was where he met his gor­geous but over­wrought wife, Vanessa, and her equally sen­sa­tional and sex­u­ally provoca­tive mother, Poppy.

This mother-daugh­ter duo is an in­trigu­ing cre­ation. Though both women are vi­va­cious and rav­ish­ing, there is no calm­ness in the tri­an­gu­lar re­la­tion­ship. The tec­tonic fury that erupts, mainly over dis­ap­point­ment at Guy’s lack of lit­er­ary drive, leads Vanessa to write her own book, which is not only pub­lished but also made into a movie, an out­come that sends her hus­band’s feel­ings of in­ad­e­quacy to sty­gian depths.

Try­ing to shield him­self from his fail­ings, Guy pon­ders the pos­si­bil­ity of tak­ing his in­fat­u­a­tion with Poppy to a higher, more sex­ual level, pro­duc­ing some of the most bizarre and out­landish pas­sages you’ll read in a novel.

Ja­cob­son is one of a hand­ful of ex­tra­or­di­nary writ­ers whose use of hu­mour as the ve­hi­cle for their thoughts of­fers a pen­e­trat­ing in­sight into so­ci­ety’s fol­lies and the ways in which our rapidly chang­ing world af­fects those who can’t find the in­ner re­solve to change with it.





Howard Ja­cob­son uses hu­mour to of­fer in­sights into so­ci­ety’s fol­lies

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