It’s All Happening at the Zoo
Now that Philip Roth has given up the ghost of fiction writing, the title of the world’s most Jewish Jewish novelist falls to Howard Jacobson, his nine-years-younger contemporary who has been called the “English Philip Roth.”
“I’m a Jewish Jane Austen,” Jacobson prefers to say, although it might be even more accurate to call him the Samuel Johnson of the Jewish novel. Instead of Austen’s “five inches of ivory,” Jacobson’s books are clamorous with the sounds of discursive battle, like Dr. Johnson’s famous conversation, in which badly equipped ideas are overrun and foolish opponents routed. Jewish writing is not defined by its subject—it doesn’t have to be set in a shtetl or a concentration camp—but by its voice, Jacobson says, a “strong, disputatious voice. You feel you're listening to ethical argumentativeness that reminds you of the Talmud.” And that’s really the only way in which Jacobson resembles Philip Roth. Along with the late Mordecai Richler, the three of them are the great masters of the Jewish talking novel. “Talking feverishly about being Jewish was being Jewish,” Jacobson says in his Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Finkler Question.
Zoo Time, Jacobson’s 12th novel, is not immediately recognizable as Jewish fiction. Its subject, instead, is the highly publicized death of books, which the Internet and the Kindle between them are supposed to have caused. The story begins when Guy Ableman, a novelist who feels no pressure to write under a nom de non juif (in a phrase he uses later), steals his own book from an Oxfam store. When the arresting officers accuse him of stealing, Guy protests:
“What word would you use, sir?” the younger of the two policeman asked me.
“Release,” I said. “I would say that I have released my book.”
“Released from what exactly, sir?” This time it was the older of the two policemen who addressed me. . . .
Roughly, what I said to him was this: Look: I bear Oxfam no grudge. I would have done the same in the highly unlikely event of my finding a book of mine for sale second-hand in Morrisons [a British supermarket]. It’s a principle thing. It makes no appreciable difference to my income where I turn up torn and dog-eared. But there has to be a solidarity of the fallen. The book as prestigious object and source of wisdom—“Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide” and all that—is dying. Resuscitation is probably futile, but the last rites can at least be given with dignity. It matters where and with whom we end our days. Officer.
Did I mention that Jacobson is (to borrow the title of his 1997 book on humor) Seriously Funny? What induces high anxiety in insatiable readers, book-lovers, and people who otherwise have less invested in books—creative writers, for instance—Jacobson plays for laughs. He gathers all the evidence of a declining respect for literature: the solemn public readings, the book signings, the book clubs, the writers’ conferences, the rise of literary ignoramuses to positions of editorial control. Thirty pages into Zoo Time, and it is difficult to take the death-of-books hysteria seriously any more. Even when Guy’s longtime publisher Merton Flak commits suicide (he’d entered publishing to find “works of enduring genius,” and he would rather die than publish a “follow-up to The Girl Who Ate Her Own Placenta”), you can’t help laughing.
Jacobson’s real concern is more urgent. What becomes of a world in which King Lear has lost its power to inspire pity and fear, Henry Miller his capacity to shock? Much of Zoo Time is taken up with Guy’s romantic pursuit of his own mother-in-law, “sixty-six and out of bounds,” but no one seems especially put out by it. Undaunted, Guy sends a book proposal to his agent:
My aim . . . is to write a transgressive novel that explores the limits of the morally permissible in our times. Who are the great blasphemers of our age? Not poets and writers any more. Stand-up comedians. My hero is a stand-up comedian. First line of novel, he walks on to the stage, says Take my mother-in-law—I just have. Audience gets up and leaves in disgust. What do you think?
This is what Guy calls “zoo time.” It is “when the sacred rules governing decent society reassert themselves only to be broken.” (It is also the source of comedy—when “we resemble beasts more closely than we resemble gods,” as Jacobson says elsewhere.) The trouble is that there are no more sacred rules, no more limits to the morally permissible. No more transgressiveness, and no more comedy either. “You’re behind the times,” his agent says. “The audience wouldn’t leave in disgust. Might not laugh, but wouldn’t walk out.” Perhaps there is no better reason for anyone to remain a novelist, Guy protests—“on behalf of everyone else he drinks humanity’s humiliation to the dregs.” Go ahead and seduce your mother-in-law if you must, Guy’s agent replies, but for God’s sake, don’t write about it.
What happens instead is that Guy’s wife Vanessa publishes a bestseller about her mother, which is turned into a movie by a Dutch director for whom she leaves him. Left without options in “the age of the dying of the word”—he refuses to write five-minute story apps for the iPhone, as his new publisher urges—Guy switches gears and strikes it rich with The Good Woman, a paean to, well, the goodness of women. He is under no illusion about his success. Suddenly he has thousands of readers, but “[t]hey read the pap I put out not because they loved me, but because they hated Proust at his most dilatory and Henry James at his most sublimely impenetrable and Lawrence at his most finical-erotical-prophetical and Céline at his most odious.” He follows up The Good Woman with The Good Daughter and he has The Good Mother ready to go. It is no problem seeing people as good, so long as they are kept away “from art and judgement, where they are as lost souls.”
The novel ends there, but—and this is the great tribute to Howard Jacobson’s fiction—the ending is not the last word. Fifty pages before the end, personal responsibility has complicated Guy’s literary career: his father, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is dying. Guy returns home to find that his brother Jeffrey has become religious and has changed his name to Yafet. He wears “fringes” and has grown “baby ringlets.” He calls himself (at least this is what Guy hears him say) a bal-chu-va. “And that means?” Guy asks. “Returning to the way of righteousness,” Jeffrey/Yafet replies. Although he is a self-described “writer of impious disturbances,” Guy is thrown into self-questioning by the changes in his brother:
I’d assumed that Jeffrey had squeezed himself into Yafet in order to damp himself down, quieten the tumult in his head. But what if Jeffrey the impious disturbance was not only still in there but more impious than ever? Not a fraud or an impostor, I wouldn’t have accused him of that, but still going both ways. The religious could do that: they could jeer at belief, rail at God Himself, from the very centre of their faith. . . . Belief contained its own parody; disbelief did not. As a matter of principle, disbelief closed down uncertainty and ambivalence. Whereas belief, particularly Jewish belief, from what I knew of it in the novels of the wild American Jews I admired, played more games with itself than any other sort. Even the most solemn Jewish holy man was a trickster at heart.
Jacobson is too generous to American Jewish novelists: he alone could have written a passage of such brazen, respectful insight into the “very centre” of the Jewish religious life. Although he himself is not a religious Jew (“I don’t go to shul,” he says), Jacobson includes scenes like this—exhibiting a far easier familiarity with and affection for the Jewish religion than anything in Roth—in The Mighty Walzer, Kalooki Nights, and The Finkler Question, his three best novels. “[T]he Jewish faith frightened even Jews,” his hero, a would-be convert, says in the last of those three. “Only a few were at home in all the ceremonials.” Jacobson is at home too—not in the ceremonials perhaps, but in the fear and uncertainty and ambivalence that characterize the modern Jew. This at-homeness with the circus of Jewish feeling is what distinguishes Howard Jacobson from the other Jewish novelists of his generation, and what makes every novel he writes, very much including Zoo Time, a must-read for Jewish readers.
D.G. Myers is a literary critic and historian with the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at the Ohio State University. Author of The Elephants Teach, he has published essays and reviews in Commentary, the New York Times Book Review, Philosophy and Literature, and elsewhere.