Howard Jacobson apparently writes comic novels. I have never found his writing funny, and it often strikes me as being in poor taste. (A Jewish anti-Zionist group called “ASH”, for example?) In a review today of his latest novel, Theo Tait puts his finger on what I don’t like about HoJa’s books:
Zoo Time conforms closely to the classic recipe for a Howard Jacobson novel. Take a childless, Jewish middle-aged man, born in Manchester or thereabouts, now living in London pursuing a profession not unlike the author’s: in the past, we’ve had columnists, cartoonists and academics; this time, he’s a novelist, Guy Ableman. Give him ungovernable romantic urges and a powerful but embattled sense of self-worth: Guy, whose first novel stars a zoo keeper and her lustful monkeys, describes himself as “a man ruled by pointless ambition and a blazing red penis”. Throw in some marital difficulties and outré sexual enthusiasms: this one briefly covers the classic Jacobson kinks – shoe fetishism, oedipal fantasy, and the powerful desire to be cuckolded – but focuses chiefly on Guy’s wish to bed his mother-in-law. Add some agitated discussion of Jewish identity. Then stir it all up with a lot of discourse, and of discourse about discourse. Ensure that the plot is minimal, and largely circular. And there it is, the distinctive feel of Jacobson’s work – like being trapped in a confined space with a particularly garrulous pervert.
. . . .
The killer for Zoo Time is that Jacobson has a limited talent for invention, and certainly very little inclination for it. As with many authors possessed of a powerful voice, it tends to crowd out everything else in the novel: “A writer such as I am feels he’s been away from the first person for too long if a third-person narrative goes on for more than two paragraphs …” Guy’s every passing thought is generously and sometimes brilliantly transcribed, but otherwise Jacobson seems to have no idea what to do with his stick people, who couple and uncouple, turn gay or Hasidic, to no discernible pattern.”
The problem with a powerful voice, as the novels of Bellow and Roth also demonstrate, is that you only reach those readers who appreciate the persona behind the voice, and who don’t mind being trapped in a confined space with him. Me? I’ll skip sharing an elevator with Jacobson or Roth or Bellow, and take the stairs, thanks.
POSTSCRIPT (2014-05-18): Ivan Klima in his memoir, My Crazy Century (Grove Press, London, 2014), writes of meeting Philip Roth in communist-ruled Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, and inadvertently captures what is bad about Roth’s (and HoJa’s) fiction:
Philip Roth, the third American prose writer who visited us several times during the first few years after occupation, seemed to me unlike other Americans in one noticeable way: He was not fond of polite, social conversation; he wanted to discuss only what interested him.” (Page 308)
POSTSCRIPT (2015-03-28): Howard Jacobson on his novels: “I was not, in my own eyes, a comic novelist, . . .”. Well here is something we can agree on! To be called a comic novelist, one first has to write novels which are funny.
POSTSCRIPT (2015-06-04): Last weekend, I found myself not ten paces away in the same near-empty room as HoJa, the entrance Hall of King’s College London, where he had come to participate in the Australian and NZ Festival of Literature. I could easily have approached him, but I could think of nothing positive to say.
POSTCRIPT (2018-06-03): In a New Yorker tribute by David Remnick to Philip Roth, who has just died, we read (issue of 4 & 11 June 2018):
“I once asked him [Roth] if he took a week off or a vacation. “I went to the Met and saw a big show they had,” he told me. “It was wonderful. I went back the next day. Great. But what was I supposed to do next, go a third time? So I started writing again.”
Having spent whole days enchanted in just two or three rooms of the Met, I am appalled by the lack of imagination, particularly visual and tactile imagination, expressed by this statement. It summarizes succinctly much of what I dislike about his fiction, all self-obsessed words and no imagination.