Howard Jacobson’s Booker-longlisted novel departs from his characteristic comic style but still paints a darkly amusing portrait of a sinister, futuristic world where every form of discord has been abolished, writes Matthew Adams.
Howard Jacobson’s new novel is an Orwellian cautionary tale
Howard Jacobson has long been recognised as an exponent of the importance of comedy and offence. For him, both are essential to civilisation; both are essential to morality; both are essential to the novel. Indeed, comedy is not just essential to the novel; the novel is – properly handled – an essentially comic medium. This is not, in today’s culture, a popular position to take, but it is a position that Jacobson has spent a large portion of his career – whether directly in expository prose or more obliquely in fictional narrative – exploring, advocating for, often vindicating. Jacobson’s novels are regonised for their staggering intellectual virtuosity, vibrant literary energy and daring comic conceits. But what kind of novel is the new one, J, which was recently longlisted for the Booker Prize?
J is set in the future. It tells the story of a country that’s attempting to recover from an event in its past that is referred to only by the phrase “What happened, if it happened” and that seems – if what happened did happen – to have taken the form of an anti-Semitic pogrom (Jews are conspicuous by their absence in this book). The phrase is indicative of the country’s favoured mode of rehabilitation and governance: namely, to attempt to induce a sense of collective amnesia on the part of its citizens and to control those citizens through euphemistic and obfuscatory language (Jacobson is close to Orwell here). This is a world in which it’s claimed that every form of discord has been abolished (and in which everything is, unsurprisingly, awful) and in which those things that are proscribed (among them jazz, wit, memory, hoarding, leaving the country, black clothes) are forbidden not by laws but by – sinister phrase – “collective consent”.
In the midst of this world we encounter Kevern Cohen, a 40-year-old wood turner who hates swearing and has “no one to love or be loved by”, and Ailinn Solomons, a 19-year-old orphan who dislikes herself, has “a tumult of dark hair, like charred straw, and darting, watching, hawk-like features”. Each feels they are in flight from something: Cohen from “invasion” and discovery; Solomons (who thinks of herself as Ahab’s quarry in Moby Dick) from being hunted to her death. And at the beginning of the novel each finds love and reassurance in the arms of the other. As the novel progresses, we follow the course of their relationship in an increasingly unsettling and alarming society. Both characters feel that they’re being watched and in some way controlled. And both wrestle with the fear that, though they feel they’re destined to be together, their relationship may have been orchestrated by “the powers that be”.
Several reviewers have found J a departure from Jacobson’s characteristic comic style, and in some ways they’re correct to do so: in terms of both form and tone, the novel does mark a shift in his career. But that shift ought not to be viewed as an abandonment of commitment to the comic form, for it’s in Jacobson’s sardonic vision – in his carefully modulated prose, his chilling ability to imbue the mundane with a kind of comic malevolence – that the book finds much of its strength and poignancy.
Where Jacobson’s previous works have tended to proceed in what looks like a rather freewheeling and associative manner, J develops in a more deliberately methodical way, by means of indirection, ambiguity, steady accretion and a ludic perversity. This is a different kind of comic mode from that which we’ve come to associate with Jacobson, but it is no less effective. J is a remarkable achievement: an affecting, unsettling – and, yes, darkly amusing – novel that offers a picture of the horror of a sanitised world whose dominant mode is elegiac, but where the possibility of elegy is everywhere collectively proscribed.
In so doing, it reminds us of the importance of facing what Jacobson calls the “charnel house” of our own histories; and of the comic cruelties of a world (Cohen’s world? Our world?) in which to think about love is, as it’s phrased early in the book, immediately to think about death.
Matthew Adams is a London-based reviewer who writes for the TLS, the Spectator and the Literary Review.