Piecing it together

Although Howard Jacobson’s latest novel is vastly unlike his previous comic works, it just may be his masterpiece

Books Literature

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. 
Moreover, the imposition of deferential manners upon the citizens of this never-land has brought about an unhealthy suppression of feelings that are now bursting out in a contagion of drunken, domestic and murderous violence. Instead of stability, there is disorder. In place of peace, there is paranoia.

All this forms the background to the relationship between Kevern Cohen and Ailinn Solomons (the conjunction of vaguely north-European forenames and Jewish-sounding surnames is another mandatory aspect of this carefully blurred society). But how did it — and they — evolve? Few direct answers are given beyond recollections such as Kevern’s about how his parents “jumped out of their skins whenever they heard footsteps outside”, but increasingly heavy hints are skilfully threaded into the plot.
Swimming against the tide, Kevern and Ailinn scour their fragmented memories for clues about their — as it turns out, similar — origins. Indeed, they are encouraged to do so by one Esme Nussbaum, a “monitor of the Public Mood”, who is on a mission to restore some balance to the community, ravaged as it is by a kind of postdiluvian anxiety. A permanent union between Ailinn and Kevern, Esme believes, could help to enable a formerly excluded group of people to take their place in the new society.
But Esme’s wish for the couple’s fruitfulness seems a forlorn one. Kevern, in particular, has “not been put on earth to fling his seed around”. His rationalisation of this voluntary infecundity is a typically outlandish Jacobsonian intellectual conceit. It is, Kevern argues, the greatest of revenges: the removal from the earth’s face of the enemy that tyrants need in order to thrive. 
As the narrative progresses, the possibility that WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED was a simulacrum of the Holocaust, grows stronger. This is implicit in the short, single-page evocations of past atrocities inserted between chapters. As it is in the scapegoating and mindless conspiracy-theorising that creep into the dialogue. Then there is talk of a people who negotiate “disproportionate” prisoner exchanges and make “the planet quake” should anyone “let one of their number perish”, familiar items on contemporary charge-sheets against Israel. Here, again, the hostility is directed not at the Jewish state per se but at “foreigners” who “had what they called a country only by taking someone else’s”.
For all the anonymity, it is clear that the Jew is Jacobson’s symbol of persecuted peoples and misunderstood minorities. Yet this in no way renders his powerful theme incapable of universal application. Neither does it impede his imaginative demonstration of how dangerous it can be to forget that both love and hatred flow from the same source — human nature.