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.

Howard Jacobson
Hogarth, 2014
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.

What Happened lurks behind the direct events of J, and as the nuances of Kevern and Ailinn's relationship are revealed so too are the details behind the event. A diaspora, perhaps forced, perhaps secret, has transplanted a certain cultural community to Port Reuben and likely other nearby islands. Under the auspices of Operation Ishmael, the community adopted new names for themselves and for their village. On the surface, there's little to connect J to modern-day Britain, but a smattering of clues will leave a careful reader with enough facts to click J into place. 
The difficulty with J is that readers will need to work to see the novel's true shape. A book about Judaism and anti-Semitism that not once uses the word "Jew" demands a developed range of knowledge; Jacobson does not spell anything out here and relies on his readers to understand his well-placed intimations. And the complexities of J extend even beyond religion: Jacobson utilizes much of Port Reuben's outlawed and overlooked media as descriptive touchstones that might be lost on a less learned audience. Fats Waller lyrics provide a musical connection, and references to fine art are used to transmit (albeit perfectly) some relatively simple ideas: a character, for instance, is described "as though Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Mists had suddenly turn around and shown himself". It is a roaringly great vision for those familiar with the painting, but one that falls flat for everyone else.
Once the dust settles and Jacobson allows his readers to see through the haze of What (really) Happened, he barrels even further into some even more difficult sociological territory. "What we have lost," a character explains, "is the experience of a deep antagonism. Not a casual, take-it-or-leave-it, family or neighborly antagonism—but something altogether less accidental and arbitrary than that. A shapely, long-ingested, cultural antagonism, in which everything, from who we worship to what we eat, is accounted for and made clear. We are who are because we are not them." And suddenly, the scariest idea of all emerges: what if this book has been about hate not to scourge the haters but to show the uncomfortable necessity of hate, and its effect at balancing society?
It's an arduous journey to reach J's core, but well worth the struggle. Jacobson is a fine writer, but is also at times too tempted by diversions. As if his "equipoise of hate" is not enough to enrapture readers, a peculiar local murder clutters up the middle of J with a few questionable turns. These seemingly dead ends and the occasional haughtiness with which they are traversed ultimately hold the novel back. J is a riveting, wickedly thoughtful read, but one caught between exceptional and essential.

Currently reading:
The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an America Hero by Timothy Egan
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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