Dystopian future without a past
J By Howard Jacobson Jonathan Cape, 336pp, $32.99 HOWARD Jacobson has said that before winning the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question in 2010 he had a writer’s voice that didn’t chime with publishers and readers. It was ‘‘like having too loud a voice for a quiet room’’. The win acted as a watershed. ‘‘I feel that voice has been accepted,’’ he says. ‘‘It is a Jewish voice.’’
Readers would need to have tin ears not to hear that. Jacobson’s books are peopled largely with British Jewish characters, many of whom are tragicomic creations well-versed in Jewish humour and often the butt of their own jokes. Self-deprecation and mock-loathing are key.
Guy Ableman, the protagonist of Zoo Time (2012), calls himself ‘‘a foul-weather Jew’’. ‘‘Jew-baiting’’ is mentioned in Kalooki Nights (2006): ‘‘And we were all Jews who were doing it.’’ This gag is recycled four years later when the eponymous Sam Finkler declares he has no anti-Semitic friends. ‘‘Yes, you do,’’ his friend Libor replies. ‘‘The Jewish ones.’’
With this in mind, we should expect more of the same from Jacobson’s new novel J, which has been longlisted for the Booker (the shortlist will be announced on Tuesday). However, this time that Jewish voice is subdued, or at least not overtly proclaiming its Jewishness.
Jacobson’s setting is a sinister domain in the future, decades after an unspeakable holocaust that can be referred to only as ‘‘what happened, if it happened’’. Jacobson peppers his narrative with many j-words (each time crossing his ‘‘j’’ with two horizontal lines, highlighting it like a scarlet letter) — junk, jam, judge, Jesus, jazz, joke — but Jews are conspicuous by their absence. Not once does the word appear.
At the centre of the tale are two lovers. Kevern is a 40-year-old woodturner with no family left alive. Ailinn is 15 years younger and an orphan. Recognising a kindred spirit, Ailinn moves into Kevern’s seaside home in Port Reuben. But problems arise when Kevern starts to delve into his hushed-up past. He discovers that his parents settled in Port Reuben not through choice but under duress. More worryingly, they may in fact have been cousins.
Kevern’s investigations alert the authorities who have ensured that the past remains closed off: history is not taught, diaries have been destroyed and public records wiped clean — and, with them, public memories. ‘‘The past exists in order that we forget it,’’ one state official explains. Another, tasked with monitoring Kevern, warns: ‘‘Danger lurks in nostalgia.’’
The longer Kevern and Ailinn stay with one another, the stronger their suspicion they were brought together by governing forces and are now being observed and controlled. A trip to the capital, nicknamed the Necropolis, is not distracting but disorienting and compounds their anxieties. And when a woman is murdered and an inquisitive policeman becomes the latest person to hound Kevern, the couple’s paranoia is heightened and their faith in the safety of their ‘‘placid haven’’ shaken.
To say that J is a marked departure for Jacobson is an understatement. Gone are his typi-