After the success of The Finkler Question, his Man-Booker Prize-winning satire on Jewish anti-Zionists and philo-Semitic Gentiles, Howard Jacobson evidently felt the need of a fresh theme for his next novel. In Zoo Time (Bloomsbury, £18.99) he tackles something equally close to his heart: bookishness. His protagonist, the writer Guy Ableman, is simultaneously in love with his wife and mother-in-law, but Jacobson’s real subject is the decline of reading, writing and publishing — the book business.
In the very first chapter, however, he takes a sideswipe at a recent high street fixture: the Oxfam bookshop. Most charity shops do no harm and may even do some good, but Oxfam bookshops have all but monopolised the second-hand book trade in Britain. They pay virtually no overheads — staff are largely volunteers, stock is donated, taxes are insignificant — and yet maximise profits on their books, using centralised warehouses and websites. A generation ago, towns were full of dusty second-hand bookshops run by eccentric characters at which everything from cheap paperbacks to antiquarian incunabula could be bought — and bargains were often to be had. Now such shops are rarer than First Folios, though you can still find them online. Oxfam shops are often excellent, but monopolists are no better for having charitable status. Oxfam has also been one of the most relentlessly hostile and one-sided critics of Israel among major charities.
I don’t know whether Jacobson knows all this, but he is certainly pretty scathing about the imaginary Oxfam bookshop in which Guy finds himself, eating an organic sausage roll, after a disastrous appearance at a women’s book club in a Cotswold town: “A chalk-white assistant with discs in his earlobes, like a Zambesi bushman, pointed to a sign saying ‘No food allowed on the premises’. A tact thing, presumably: you don’t fill your face while the rest of the world is starving.” Guy steals his own novel but is arrested for shoplifting by two constables. After he has explained that he is the stolen book’s author, they decide to let him off with a caution — but not before one policeman has ticked him off for his grammar, in the dedication: “To the fairest of the fair: my beloved wife and mother-in-law.” Protesting that the adjective “beloved” applies only to his wife, Guy receives the stern riposte: “Shouldn’t you have put a comma before the and, in that case?”
Not that Jewishness is entirely absent from Zoo Time. “You see — you’re considerate. I think that’s because you’re a Jew,” the assimilated Guy is informed by his adored (and non-Jewish) mother-in-law Poppy. Guy makes fun of the “genuine fired-up apocalyptic Jew, who thought about being Jewish every hour he was awake and most of the hours he wasn’t” — until he discovers that his brother has become one. Jeffrey, normally dressed in an Alexander McQueen jacket, is now Yafet, a Homburg — wearing, bearded disciple of the Lubavitcher Rabbi Orlovsky. “You like writing about wild guys?” Yafet asks. “Well, who’s wilder than a Jew?” And Guy ends up by wondering: “Had I missed out on my wildness by missing out on being Jewish?”
The novel’s message is that being Jewish is not only no obstacle to charity, it even gives Guy the subject he needs for his first bestseller The Good Woman. For Jacobson, being bookish and doing good are inseparable from being Jewish — whatever Oxfam may say.