x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Jacobson has an axe to grind in Zoo Time

A novelist trying to boost his waning career finds his life full of angst.

British author Howard Jacobson, whose latest novel is about a grouchy writer and his flagging career, plays  ping-pong at a restaurant in Washington while being interviewed.
British author Howard Jacobson, whose latest novel is about a grouchy writer and his flagging career, plays ping-pong at a restaurant in Washington while being interviewed.

Zoo Time
Howard Jacobson

Bloomsbury
Dh42

Guy Ableman, the protagonist of Howard Jacobson's latest, riotous novel, Zoo Time, is a moderately successful writer at pains to revive his flagging career. His earlier, "elegantly profane" novel Who Gives A Monkey's? caused a faint literary stir and augured great promise. Thirteen years later, Ableman hasn't delivered anything as good, let alone bettered it. His publisher has committed suicide, his agent is in hiding. He is blocked, bleeding readers and growing more hostile towards the players within "the begrudging, disconfederate world of writing". Perhaps worst of all is that his fiery red-headed wife, Vanessa, is also at work on a novel, her first, and, unlike him, looks set to finish it. So much for his continually thwarted progress as a writer. Ableman's other, more desperate source of torment is his obsessive love for Vanessa's mother, Poppy.

Zoo Time is Jacobson's first novel since winning the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question. In many respects it is business as usual. Ableman is a typical Jacobson creation - male, Jewish, grouchy, cynical, slightly neurotic, preoccupied and fed up with failing - who shares many of Jacobson's own beliefs and harbours many of his grudges. But as Ableman is also a writer, specifically a novelist, this time around the amalgam of traits between character and author feels more tightly bound than before. Zoo Time is a thoroughly bookish book, alive with literary allusion, rich in writer's wisdom and brimming with love for the printed word. Ableman, and by extension, Jacobson, explains early on that "books distracted me, they were an illness, an impediment to a healthy life". Before becoming an author, Ableman worked in his mother's boutique, ignoring the customers with his head buried in a book. When Vanessa and Poppy walk in for the first time, he sits up and takes notice and is smitten by Vanessa's "Zhivago hat - Anna Karenina was who I saw (who else?)"; more bizarrely, her frame seems "overstrung, taut, vibrating, in a way that reminded me of a description of a schooner's rigging I had read by Joseph Conrad". As if this wasn't enough, the whole encounter for him feels like a scene from Cranford.

Ableman marries Vanessa and gets published but can't stay content for long. What he has is never enough. Poppy is a regular distraction, and after a dalliance with a fan behind Vanessa's back he finds himself led by his illicit thoughts (bubbling up from "the sewerage of my morality"). Suddenly it no longer feels taboo to make a move on his mother-in-law. His satisfaction at being in print quickly sours when his readership dwindles and rival writers leapfrog him to achieve big-time success. Book launches begin to feel like wakes. A visit to an embalmer is preferable to lunch with his agent. At his lowest ebb, he foresees himself "suffering the excruciations of the slowest extinction of them all - death by creeping invisibility: a day at a time, a book at a time, the novelist vanishing from the shelves of public libraries, from the windows of bookshops, from the recollections of once loyal readers".

A broader picture and a louder complaint develop. Ableman is concerned about his moribund career and his excoriating harangues on talentless peers and paltry writers' wages are stoked with righteous ire and devoid of self-pity. But when the death of his publisher leads to a screed on the death of the novel, Ableman starts to rant, and noisily, on "the devaluation of the book as object, the disappearance of the word as the book's medium" but also "library closures, Oxfam, Amazon, e-books, iPads, Oprah, apps, Richard and Judy, Facebook, Formspring, Yelp, three-for-two, the graphic novel, Kindle, vampirism". The shorter, subtler grumbles are by turn funny ("unread, we were dying of word-gangrene") and lyrical ("our own unencountered words were killing us"); but they only give rise to another flashpoint, and before we know it we are confronted with another screed bewailing the evil predominance of the detective novel, the children's novel and the debut novel. Zoo Time is marred by Ableman being mired in fury, and it is during these rants that resemblance morphs into reality, with Ableman feeling less like a fictional puppet of the author and more like the puppet-master himself.

Luckily, Zoo Time is also deeply funny, and there is more than enough comedy to temporarily muffle the angry diatribes. Most of the humour is derived from self-reflexive, self-deprecating character assassinations. Ableman is "a writer of rudery" (and yet one who "joined words, not bodies") and the ribald contents of his books provide many laughs. Comedy has played a key role in Jacobson's books, and in a critical work, Seriously Funny - From The Ridiculous To The Sublime (1997), he argues that comedy's overriding preoccupation is "that we resemble beasts more closely than we resemble gods, and that we make great fools of ourselves the moment we forget it". It is precisely when Ableman takes himself too seriously that he becomes an object of derision, particularly for his wife.

Jacobson also excels at farce, unafraid at going over the top while always retaining a kernel of truth. At the opposite end of this same scale, Jacobson is just as adept at mingling pathos with humour, as when Ableman realises that fiction has been usurped by food and fashion and that comedians are the new writers. However, Jacobson comes unstuck with an overreliance on repetition for gags. Asked by his wife what his book is about, Ableman answers "animality, sensuality, cruelty, indifference". The punchline arrives when immediately afterwards "she laughed animalistically, sensually, cruelly, indifferently". Later, Ableman visits his parents and finds them "doing a jigsaw of Chester Castle. The last time I'd visited them they were doing a jigsaw of Chester Castle". The first instance is mildly amusing but it is a trope that quickly becomes wearying and, more disastrous for comedy, predictable.

"I know when a writer's in trouble," Ableman tells his agent. "When he resorts to writing about writing." This is usually the case, but Jacobson had an axe to grind and a tale to tell. He had written half of Zoo Time when he won the Booker, and it must have felt strange finishing a satirical novel about the decline of literary culture and featuring an unappreciated writer modelled on himself, after winning a top literary prize. He stuck to his guns and kept his original bugbears in his sights but it is a pity he comes out with all of those guns blazing. Jacobson's superabundance of caustic humour is always welcome, but with regards to those gripes, less is definitely more.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.