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