Sunday, March 20, 2016
REVIEW: Howard Jacobson, J (and a signed US first edition)
Last Thursday I had the pleasure of seeing Howard Jacobson and James Shapiro talk about The Merchant of Venice at the 92nd Street Y. Jacobson is an absolutely fantastic writer, and he and Shapiro each read some of their own work and discussed Jacobson's recently published Shylock Is My Name, and in, general, the portrayal of Jews in Shakespeare's plays. I reviewed Shylock Is My Name at Run Spot Run and while I didn't think it was as brilliant as I knew Jacobson was capable of being, it's still a worthy effort. What was most fascinating about this talk was that Shapiro and Jacobson both addressed the limitations of Shakespeare and how the Bard's plays are by no means flawless (save Hamlet, I suppose). The Merchant of Venice is full of strange moments that a more casual reader might fault Jacobson's Shylock for including. I realized, that night, that many of my nitpicks about Shylock stem from the source material, and that Jacobson did a better job with the uneven hand he was dealt that I had ever imaged.
After the talk, I went to get my books signed and I told Jacobson that his novel J absolutely floored me and that I hope he wanders back into that novel's strange territory again. Sadly, he told me he wasn't sure: "it didn't do as well as we all had hoped", he said, and seemed genuinely surprised and humbled that anyone actually liked this book. This was one of my favorites from a few years ago, and I'm honored to get the "J" in my name crossed by the man himself.
While I am only one small voice in the reading and review community, I can't help but feel like I failed with regards to J. So, for one last time, here is a review I wrote back in January 2015 for About.com. I sincerely hope some of you go pick it up.
J Howard Jacobson
Review by Jeff Alford
Howard Jacobson's J is a dystopian novel of a rarely seen complexity, in line more with Samuel Beckett's Endgame than The Hunger Games. Set in the damp, rustic village of Port Reuben, J follows the paranoid woodworker Kevern Cohen's courtship with Ailinn Solomons, a local paper-flower florist. Cohen describes his own temperament as "heavy, ornate and unwelcoming" and "out of place", which is almost perfect for their village. Port Reuben feels lost in time, the near future stuck in a cultural leap backwards. Something happened here, recently or eons ago, that seems to have reset the world's cultural progression. Elsewhere, a cast of characters secretly keeps tabs on Kevern and Ailinn: for some reason, their union has placed them on a watch list of sorts. Perhaps Kevern's secret trove of illicit jazz records and historical documents he inherited from his father is to blame, or maybe something from his mother's side. Maybe his lineage has done him a grave, unspoken disservice.
J is a novel of suppression. This suppression is most noticeable at the start of the book, where Kevern Cohen is seen twitchily crossing his lips with two fingers while speaking. A tradition of his father's that he neurotically picked up, Kevern manually attempts to block the "J" sounds of certain words from exiting his lips (this is actually rendered typographically in J with a crossed letter). He seems to speak carefully, circuitously avoiding J words so as not to activate his tic, but later it's apparent that there are not many J words to speak about. His jazz records, for instance, are "not banned...[but] simply not played," and the dystopian landscape of Port Reuben seems not the place for cracking jokes, championing justice, or much of anything else. Those who have read Jacobson before will immediately sense the absence of another J, whose suppression is later revealed to be the chilling core of this peculiar novel.
The characters of J speak of a drop-capped, central cultural event, referring to it as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. Jacobson spirals around this event with careful omission, revealing the shadows of a social horror without brightening the center. Of the world before, "Kevern couldn't remember what they were like, only that everything was like something else, as though what had destroyed the city was not disease or overpopulation or an asteroid but a fatal outbreak of febrile fantasy-fiction metaphor." What Happened is strangely contemporary, and seems to have been driven by social media and the ease of transmitting messages to an entire population. One local scholar, who is secretly employed to watch over Kevern in Port Reuben, refers to what happened as Twitternacht, a reference (surprisingly obvious in a book so hazy) to Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom. The name "Twitternacht," the holocaust-denying vibe "IF IT HAPPENED," and the suppression of the J's all point to the atrocities of some 21st-century ethnic cleanse.