Cover of book: J

Howard Jacobson

Its publishers claim that “It is like no other novel that Howard Jacobson has written.” On the contrary, J is like every other novel he’s written.

In a recent essay Jacobson told of how his father used to warn him not to draw attention to his Jewishness. “Take a shtum powder,” Jacobson snr would say. His son did what sons do, and his refusal to keep shtum is at the heart of Howard Jacobson’s fiction – even The Act of Love in which he disallowed himself any mention of Jews or Jewishness. (He went so far as considering the exclusion of any word containing the letter J, an idea foiled by the realisation that his own name would appear on the cover.) His protagonist in The Making of Henry “thinks every J should keep the J word somewhere about his person”.

In his new novel J (rendered with an HTML-defying double strikethrough line), there are neither Js nor J words – not as such. Without knowing why (he got the habit from his father), Kevern Cohen places two fingers across his lips whenever he utters the letter J: jazz, joke, Jesus. Kevern is an outsider in the seaside village where he’s lived his whole life. He carries on his late father’s trade of wood-carver, with love spoons his specialty. He often sits alone on a cliff-top bench:

That was the great thing about the sea: you didn’t have to worry about it … It hadn’t been owned and hidden by your family for generations. It didn’t run in your blood.

Kevern lives in the cottage he grew up in, surrounded by his dead parent’s possessions: heavy Biedermeier furnishings, old LPs and boxes – lots of boxes, one marked “Private Property” and one marked for Kevern’s attention “only in the event of his considering fatherhood”. Much of this counts as contraband and, whether for that reason or some other, Kevern shuns visitors and, whenever he goes out, obsessively checks door locks and the arrangement of his hallway rug.

The village is Port Reuben, formerly Ludgvennok, in far-west Bethesda (we’re meant to think Cornwall). The time is about 70 years from now, and some 65 years since an unmentionable occurrence that has cast the people of Great Britain into a moral and cultural miasma. “what happened, if it happened” is how it’s spoken of, if spoken of at all. People are always apologising to one another, but reflexively, by rote. At the same time, they treat each other with coarse brutishness: the brazen, semi-violent tussle of “snogging” forms a public mating ritual; women routinely sport black eyes and bruises.

We learn that “ ‘they’ is a policed pronoun today”, but are privy to private diaries and official dispatches that make ominous reference to “those about whom something needed to be done” and “those who vanished”. Following what happened, if it happened was an official process of “moral hypnosis”, Operation Ishmael, “granted a universal amnesty, dispensing once and for all with invidious distinctions between the doers and the done-to”. Every surname and place name was replaced with a Judaic-sounding one. Public records were wiped clean, technologies unplugged, borders closed. Nothing is proscribed, exactly, just discouraged, for people’s own good. Modernist art, jazz – anything unpredictable (“There was room for only one ‘if’ in life”) – are among the things stifled. And heirlooms, antiques: hence Kevern’s unease.

… he sat on his bench and wondered if he was about to experience happiness and, if so, whether he was up to it.

If he weren’t such a nihilist, Kevern would concede that his life is looking up. Against all odds, he’s lately formed a tender, loving relationship with Ailinn Solomons, a newcomer from the north. Yet he can’t shake the feeling that their meeting was engineered and that they’re being watched.

Jacobson renders the dystopian set-up – a putty-coloured world framed by fakery and euphemism, set to a soundtrack of sappy ballads and riven by mile-wide resentments – with deadpan conviction undercut by his trademark wit. Much of what the reader discerns of what happened… and what followed comes by way of regular diarised bulletins from Everett Zermansky, Professor of Benign Visual Arts at the Bethesda Academy and government snitch. Zermansky’s pompous confidences, besides filling in background, supply an outlet for Jacobson’s comic, punning propensity.

In the privacy of his diary, the odious Zermansky amuses himself by referring to what happened… as “Twitternacht” – “twitter like much else in the same vein that was then the rage, having proceeded from the alien intelligences of the very people who were to lose most by it”. From that and other clues, we are given to understand that social media was instrumental in genocide. What strains a modern reader’s imagination is not just the idea that mobile phone networks and the internet could have been “shut down” in the wake of what happened…, but that there appears to have been no resistance or resurgence, not even underground. The sole communication device in Jacobson’s future Britain is the utility phone, good for local calls only. One can’t help suspecting the author of being a not-so-secret Luddite.

J loses focus in its middle third, skewed off-story by a comically gruesome murder subplot and the lovers’ misguided road trip to the capital. The book’s female characters are Jacobson’s usual stubborn and spirited crew, quick to take offence and quick to give it. But between Ailinn and Kevern there’s a real and rare tenderness (rare for Jacobson, not just for Port Reuben) – a sure sign they’re doomed.

Here and there in his novel, Jacobson interposes a page torn from some other book, some other time, hinting at mobs and fires and broken glass, packed trains travelling east through snow, mothers and children separated by bayonet. Fingers on lips notwithstanding, Howard Jacobson is still not taking a shtum powder.  FL

Jonathan Cape, 336pp, $32.99


This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 27, 2014 as "Howard Jacobson, J".

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