J by Howard Jacobson
Review by M
J has been shortlisted for the Man Booker 2014.
(Please note: The title of this novel is not J. It is a struck out J but I don’t know how to type that!)
I’ve never finished The Finkler Question, the only Jacobson I’ve ever started to read, and the curious thing about this was that there ‘was’ something that I liked about his writing just as there ‘was’ something I did not like. Precise, aren’t I?
When J came up for review (prior to its Booker listing), both this niggle about Jacobson’s writing and the premise for J grabbed my current attention. Going by the blurb, J is both a dystopian novel and a love story, so pretty much right up my street.
Set in the future, a not-spoken -about past frames the novel, and the narrator hovers it over the characters like a thick mist: What Happened, If It Happened. Most of the novel is spent providing clues and red herrings as to What happened, if It happened (my early hunch was that something almost apocalyptic had happened due to social media – but I was wrong and anyone who understands the significance of the struck out J will have a good idea from the offing What has happened).
The narrator expounds philosophically about the pre- and post- treatment of It (for me, this went on a bit too much and was not sufficiently convincing). Post-It, public mood is presided over by an agency known as Ofnow (hmm, Atwoodian handmaids anyone?). Unfortunately, this ‘new’ world that J creates, is not fully explored and just doesn’t feel quite right.
J turns, however (and ultimately,thankfully), around two central characters, Ailinn and Kevern, and their new love affair, the future of which hangs in the balance due to a pair of ugly feet and a murder mystery. Jacobson crafts a believably poignant relationship, and these two characters, for me, are what carry the novel.
As the novel unfolds, the significance of the struck out J and What Happened, If It Happened is deadly serious. It is unnerving and unsettling, and on one count is not something unfamiliar from real life and on another count is not unfamiliar from the worlds of big brother.
Jacobson puts much detail but also not enough into the plotlines so that some elements seemed superfluous while others were lacking. I found the ending very unsatisfying, partly because some things felt as if they were left hanging, but also because some things just didn’t feel like they fit well. I struggled to identify the ‘tone’ of the novel – there was always a lighthearted humour mingling with something much, much darker. It just didn’t feel plausible enough (though perhaps this is ‘the point’). I think I'd recommend this as a library read to some people.
Publication details: 14 August 2014, Jonathan Cape, London, hardbackThis copy: digital review copy from the publisher