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Howard Jacobson: "J" may be his masterpiece (Keke Keukelaar)

If you look up Howard Jacobson's Wikipedia entry, you'll find that he is described as "best known for writing comic novels that often revolve around the dilemmas of British Jewish characters". It is a reasonable enough summary — even if "comic novels" somewhat understates Jacobson's wit, erudition and fine writing. 

Not many readers of any of his dozen previous novels, however, will have imagined him writing a book like J. Though there are touches of comedy, this is certainly not a comic novel. And, while there is a decidedly British ambience to its locations, none is identified as being in Britain. Its principal landscape feels Cornish but is never referred to as such. A once-grand city in multicultural decay carries echoes of London, but a London in which even Dr Johnson would experience chronic fatigue. As for "Jewish", the word doesn't appear once; neither does "Jew". Yet it is probably Jacobson's most significantly Jewish book and quite possibly his masterpiece.

At its heart is a love story between two confused and alienated individuals whose relationship seems to have an underlying inevitability. By conventional romantic standards, these are unremarkable lovers, flawed both physically and psychologically. Nevertheless, they achieve a tender intimacy with a natural regard for each other in what are strikingly unnatural circumstances. For not only are the places described in J unidentified but the period, too, is unspecified other than as a vague, post-catastrophic future in which discrimination is compulsorily positive.

The catastrophe itself is so undefined that the inhabitants of this disguised dystopia are not permitted even to acknowledge it. As it fades into history, the possibility is being promoted that it may never have actually happened. Jacobson conveys this by means of the capitalised refrain: WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. Direct reference or remembrance is ironed out by a general obligation to apologise: "After the falling-out, the saying sorry. That was the way. They had all been taught it at school. Always say sorry." 

Communication within this constrained world is strictly limited. The only remaining forms of social and broadcast media are the "utility phone" and the console that plays "soothing music and calming news". The embrace of internet technology has long been repelled. Years ago, we are told, there were comics in which it was possible to read about "a time when people wrote to one another by phone but wrote such horrid things that the practice had to be discouraged". 

But, while Jacobson is clearly not citing our own time as a golden age, he makes it plain that the bland, futuristic replacement for civilisation he describes in his novel cannot work. Inevitably, music beyond the soothing kind, art beyond the perfunctory, and information beyond the anodyne, will always be sought after. The authorities' curtailment of human curiosity about the past can eradicate neither the curiosity nor the past. Individuals will inevitably investigate, however clandestinely, the histories of their communities, their families and themselves. 

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