Man Booker challenge 2014: J, by Howard Jacobson
Hello, woodsiegirl here! Once again (for I think the third year in a row?), I am attempting my annual challenge of reading the Booker Prize shortlist before the winner is announced. I have yet to manage reading all six before the announcement deadline, so here’s hoping I manage a better job of it this year!
My first title from the shortlist is J, by Howard Jacobson.
Set in the future – a world where the past is a dangerous country, not to be talked about or visited – J is a love story of incomparable strangeness, both tender and terrifying.
Two people fall in love, not yet knowing where they have come from or where they are going. Kevern doesn’t know why his father always drew two fingers across his lips when he said a world starting with a J. It wasn’t then, and isn’t now, the time or place to be asking questions. Ailinn too has grown up in the dark about who she was or where she came from.
On their first date Kevern kisses the bruises under her eyes. He doesn’t ask who hurt her. Brutality has grown commonplace. They aren’t sure if they have fallen in love of their own accord, or whether they’ve been pushed into each other’s arms. But who would have pushed them, and why?
Hanging over the lives of all the characters in this novel is a momentous catastrophe – a past event shrouded in suspicion, denial and apology, now referred to as What Happened, If It Happened.
The only previous book of Howard Jacobson’s that I’d read was The Finkler Question, which won the Booker in 2010. If J wins this time round, it will be several firsts for the prize: at 72, Jacobson would be the oldest ever winner; J would be the book with the shortest title to win the prize, and also the first Booker winner to be set in the future. I was actually a little surprised at this last point, but it’s true – although a couple of speculative/dystopian books have been shortlisted before (Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go spring to mind), none has ever won the prize. It’s been suggested that this lack “testifies to the prize’s notorious sniffiness towards SF and fantasy” – something I’d find difficult to argue with.
However, to say that J is set in a dystopian future doesn’t mean it is science fiction. Although it is clearly set in the future (the actual date is unclear, but it appears to be maybe three or four generations ahead of today), this is a very low-tech future. Smartphones and internet access have vanished, thanks to the part they are thought to have played in “What Happened, If It Happened” (once, provocatively, referred to as “twitternacht”). Of course, in this more-or-less totalitarian future, nothing is outright banned – it’s just understood that certain things, like jazz and subversive art and hoarding family memorabilia, just aren’t done.
“Jazz, too, without exactly being proscribed, wasn’t played… People wanted to be sure, when a tune began, exactly where it was going to end. Wit, the same. Its unpredictability unsettled people’s nerves. And jazz was wit expressed musically.”
“So portrait painting is a further recidivism that’s frowned on and discouraged – that’s in as far as one can discourage anything in a free society. In the main, prize-culture does the job for us. When all the gongs go to landscape, why would any aspiring artist waste his energies on the dull and relentless cruelties of the human face?”
In this world, people live in a constant state of apologising for What Happened, If It Happened – something that may or may not have occurred several generations ago – while simultaneously denying any responsibility for it, and also denying that it happened, or could have happened, at all. Talking about the past at all is frowned upon, as is holding onto family mementoes or heirlooms, or trying to look too hard into your own family history. The latter is more or less impossible at any rate, thanks to Project Ishmael – an initiative that came after What Happened, If It Happened, in which everyone was assigned a new (and, coincidentally, Jewish…) name.
The consequence of Operation Ishmael…is that tracing lineage is not only as good as impossible, it is unnecessary. We are all one big happy family now. Zermanskys, Cohens, Rosenthals…We acknowledge a kinship which we all tacitly know to be artificial but which works… [Operation Ishmael] granted a universal amnesty, dispensing once and for all with invidious distinctions between the doers and the done-to.
The book is carefully constructed, giving little hints here and there that gradually, almost painfully slowly, build up to a horrifying picture. Jacobson does a masterful job of dropping just enough clues into this otherwise banal future to create a sense of creeping dread and terror lurking under the surface. The truth of What Happened, If It Happened is never explicitly stated, but by the end you’re in no doubt as to what it was. It ends on a wonderfully bleak note – like the best of dystopic fiction, it seems to offer it’s characters a brighter future, while in fact doing nothing of the sort.
I have to say, starting my shortlist readalong with J feels like setting the bar very high. The writing is stunning, the plot intricate, the characters believable, and the storytelling just the right mix of dark humour, anger, hope and pessimism. I don’t usually like to pick a favourite until I’m a little further into the shortlist, but this is a very strong contender already.