J by Howard Jacobson

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In 1889, Sir Julius Vogel, debt-ridden businessman and one-time New Zealand Prime Minister, wrote a spectacularly weird novel called Anno Domini 2000: Or, a Woman’s Destiny. At the end of his political career—which included the introduction of the 1887 Woman’s Suffrage Bill, making New Zealand the first nation to give women the vote—Vogel imagined a world of jet engines, nuclear weapons, women’s liberation and “noiseless telegraphs” for instant communication, all explained through a hilariously florid love story. “Its politician’s zest for debate, prediction and policy,” the introduction from the millennial re-release tells us, “are unfortunately not matched by fictional inventiveness.”

As we know from Howard Zinn and Glenn Beck, it is he bad habit of established political and intellectual figures to use novels as vehicles for their ideas. As the surprisingly honest introduction to Anno Domini 2000 puts it, in most cases, “the story loiters, its scenes are theatrical, and it would be flattering to call its characters two dimensional.” Novels of ideas, it would seem, are best left to novelists.

J by Howard Jacobson is a novel of ideas—or, more precisely, a novel of an idea. Set in the future—post-catastrophe, post-pogrom, if not quite post-apocalypse—J follows Kevern Cohen, a bumbling and neurotic craftsmen who falls in love with Ailinn Solomons, described as a “wild-haired, quietly delicate beauty with a fluttering heart.”

Ailinn and Kevern quickly move in together. Jacobson, following standard comic procedure, focuses on their idiosyncratic stupidities, which generates conflict and keeps the plot moving. Jacobson’s default tone is a sort of shabby, melancholy charm, interrupted every now and then by moments of high seriousness and, occasionally, beauty: Kevern’s love affairs, we are told, “gradually came apart like a cardboard box that had been left out in the rain.” Over the course of the novel, we learn the lovers’ family histories and, in the process, that they are living in the wake of a major catastrophe.

Initially given in slim, bloody flashbacks, this catastrophe is a state-sponsored, ritualistic massacre of the Jewish population, described throughout as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED:

Six hundred, seven hundred… into the marketplace of Medina, and there, one at a time, each with his hands tied behind his back, they were decapitated in the most matter-of-fact way… their headless bodies tipped into a great trench that had been dug specially to accommodate them… She looked on with indifference as the trench overflowed with the blood that was nobody’s.

We gradually learn that this massacre—which took place several decades before the action of the novel—and its aftermath is directly connected to the love affair of Kevern and Ailinn. Jacobson’s revelation of what all this means, which is given in the final forty or so pages of the novel, is a triumph, and I won’t spoil it here.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

But what about the idea? Jacobson gives it to us in his opening “Argument”—a short parable of a wolf and a tarantula in which the wolf, in order to prove his greater skill as a hunter, kills all his natural prey in a single week. The tarantula, acknowledging this feat, wonders what the wolf will now do for food:

At this the gray wolf burst into tears. “I had to eat my wife,” he admitted. “And next week I will start on my children.”

“And after that?”

“After that? After that I will have no option but to eat myself.”

Moral: Always leave a little on your plate.

In the context of the novel, this moral is decidedly creepy: The “little”, then, is the Jewish population; the wolf is everyone else. In broad terms, the idea is that nations need a minority on which to express their inherent violence and hate. Without that minority, the nation will turn its violence and hate upon itself.

In this sense, J is a sort of thought experiment about the dynamics of “self” and “other” in the age of ethnic cleansing. In practice, though, J is less thought experiment and more thought confirmation. What are, at the beginning, opaque suggestions, quickly become explicit statements, tellingly placed in the mouths of several different characters:

Kevern’s grandmother: “Be careful not to be on disgust’s receiving end. Because whoever disgusts you will destroy you.”

Kevern: “If you want God, you’ve got to have the Devil.”

A bureaucrat, Esme Nussbaum: “We are who we are because we are not them.”

A teacher: “We were who we were because we were not them. So why did that translate into hate?”

The idea, then, is hard to miss: it seems that everyone in the novel has an opinion on the dialectic of self and other. “We have to have people to hate, to create a menace. It is not pleasant, but that is how we are,” Jacobson has said, in an interview. The fact that several of his characters say precisely the same thing is not a great sign: Jacobson is too keen on this idea; he has expressed it too clearly, and too often, from too many mouths.

Let’s take one more example. In a scene toward the middle of the novel, a doctor sits with Ailinn and Kevern—who have traveled to the “Necropolis”, a post-pogrom London—and explains that the pogroms were only nominally done to benefit (or to revenge) the dispossessed populations of Palestine: “We said we were acting in their interests, when all along we were acting in our own.” Again, this opinion is too close to the novel’s thesis, as well as Jacobson’s publicly stated political beliefs, to be the speech of a fully realized character. The novel continues to return to these moments of analysis, which sit awkwardly apart from the characters that speak them. As ever, the novel’s overarching impulse is to serve its idea.

Jacobson’s deference to this idea means that other aspects of his dystopia remain under-explained and under-imagined. One of the more egregious examples is his explanation of the socio-economic collapse that followed the massacre of the Jewish population.

Outside the capital people had survived the failure of the banks with surprising fortitude; they even took a grim satisfaction in returning to old frugal ways… In time the Necropolis recovered, to a degree, but its self-esteem, as a great center of finance and indulgence, had been damaged.

Jacobson, as this unconvincing description suggests, would rather not talk about the economy: his dramatis personae are, exclusively, the state, the nation, and the individual. This mention of a banking collapse shows us the seams; elsewhere these seams look like holes. The nature of the shops in Kevern’s small town, for example, appears to be no different than a small town in any other market economy; when they travel to London, though, it seems like multinational capitalism has collapsed, or at least been entirely re-figured, an idea that is nowhere pursued in the rest of the book.

The state, too, is difficult to comprehend. Its major institutions appear to have continued in much the same form, though it is hard to tell just how totalitarian it has become. We have citizen-informants and oblique references to secret police; but J never directly blames the state for the crimes of the nation; nor does it suggest that some heroic population is shackled to the whims of some centralized authority. Many of the novelties of this new world—such as its denial of certain kinds of culture and history, and its steampunkish relation to pre-digital technologies—are explicitly not determined by the state. The state, for its part, it does not seem to legislate so much as emanate across the country, so that everyone knows what they are meant to be doing, without ever being told.

Jacobson is, despite the grand themes of his last two novels and his recent published essays, a writer of the micro, not the macro. All dystopias are novels of ideas, in that their speculative “dys” derives from some theory of our current “topos.” J‘s theory of our current topos is only partial; its expression of our future topos can only be partial in turn. In its broad historic sweeps, J is incomplete.

In its small moments, though, J is exceptional. Jacobson describes this world with a sort of shabby, melancholy charm, and he is broadly sympathetic to the comic idiocies and eccentricities of his characters. He is, in the end, a humanist, and his avuncular, slightly teasing concern for Kevern and Ailinn allows him to write some rather pretty sentences. Read J, then, not for its idea—which is, in the end, a somewhat outdated sociological truism—but from its vibrant depictions of ordinary idiots.


Matt McGregor is from New Zealand, and is currently working, reading and writing in Albany, New York. More from this author →