J: A Dystopian Marvel from Howard Jacobson

J  (2014)
Howard Jacobson
Crown, 312 pages
* * * *

Howard Jabobson’s chilling dystopian novel J dares ask three questions: Can there be reconciliation without truth? Can there be history without memory? Can either love or hate exist within the other?

Jacobson—who won the Man Booker Prize for his 2010 novel Finkler—takes us to a future Britain that is failing to recover from a cataclysm so vague that it is always referred to as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.” Britain already has a problem—basic linguistics theory has long held that naming is a necessary precursor to mastery. But before Jacobson probes this, he opens with a parable of a wolf and a spider in which the ravenous lupine falters and the patient arachnid survives. Readers need to be spiders as well, as Jacobson spins a web that emerges slowly before it takes shape. In fact, it’s not immediately clear at first we are in England, as opposed to Germany, Russia, or maybe Wales. And, of course, we're not sure what happened, if it happened. There are rumors of mass killings, but where are the bodies? If it happened, how can the victims have simply disappeared?

Jacobson’s dystopian Britain isn’t one out of Children of Men—it’s more terrifying and more English. After the thing that might not have happened, Britain is dying a death from a thousand paper cuts in a land that doesn’t “ban” things outright; one simply doesn’t do certain things: listen to jazz, travel abroad, read most books, collect fancy furniture, stand out, or think about the past. Especially the latter, which is dissuaded by public campaigns to “let sleeping dogs lie,” think of “memory as useless,” and view the past as an obstacle to thinking “about the future.” Powerful social conventions are (usually) passively enforced by Ofnow, an enforcer branch of government, which occasionally dissuades individuals directly. Mainly, though, society is held in check by an elaborate peer pressure network in which everyone is watching everyone else for any signs of “unusual” behavior, defined mostly as being vaguely unconventional or solitary. It’s as if every citizen is involved in a network that’s like a grassroots mash-up of Stasi and Savak.

Still another oddity: everyone has a Jewish-sounding last name, which we learn was the project of Operation Ishmael after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. The book centers on two individuals who must be suspect because they are unusual: Kevern Cohen and Ailinn Solomons. Kevern lives in Port Rueben, where he carves wooden spoons for the tourist trade—often under the tutelage of a mentor Professor Everett Zermansky, who heads the division of Benign Visual Arts. (It just isn’t done to make distressing expressionist or abstract art.) Kevern is a dour, naïve, and exceedingly cautious man more disposed towards being a hermit than part of a group think society. That suits Kevern fine—he was raised to be invisible by a cheerless mother and a disengaged father whose most notable trait was that he made a sport of placing two fingers in front of his lips before pronouncing any word beginning with the letter “J.” Kevern falls in love with the quirky, perky Ailinn, whose favorite book is Moby Dick. Love serves mainly to raise Kevern’s caution flags higher as he knows it’s unlikely for two “aphids”–a word used by those who think they are above the hoi polloi—to expect happiness. Moreover, why is Ailinn’s former roommate, the mysterious Esme, so invested in wanting the two of them to have a child?

How does one discover the truth of anything in a land where Densdell Kroplick, the village barber, is also the official local historian cranking out pamphlets that are piles of folktales and sanitized stories of artisan crafts? How does one recover the past in a place where memory is only two-generations deep? Is there a future in a land in which moroseness and violence are creeping upward? When Kevern and Ailinn travel to the capital city of Necropolis (London), they encounter a glum, dangerous, and shabby place—but mostly it exudes a gray soullessness that dissolves into a metaphorical obscuring mist that’s as foggy as what happened (and it’s clear something did).

What’s Jacobson on about? A clue comes in the fact that many in Necropolis are wearing keffiyahs. Another is the J word never spoken: Jew. And when a character begins to speak in obvious riddles—“What is a culture but ghosts?” “What’s Ahab without his whale?”­—and insist upon an “equipoise of hate,” an “H” word is suggested: Holocaust. Jacobson has been vocal in his denunciations of how Islamophobia is often invoked to excuse modern-day British anti-Semitism. Is Port Rueben a living museum, an incubator for a better future, a shtetl awaiting a new pogrom, or something sinister?

This is, simply, an amazing work of literature. Jabobson often writes is long, sweeping sentences and uses beautiful words—some of which will send you scurrying to your dictionary. I have seldom read such a chilling and gripping work in which tension is sustained in silences rather than actions, and terror looms most ominously in passivity.
Rob Weir

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