Howard Jacobson is a novelist known for his humour and wit. His 2010 Man Booker Prize winning novel The Finkler Question is one of few Booker winners to be so brazenly comedic, wearing humour as a heart proudly on its sleeve. Not only is The Finkler Question a highly acclaimed novel, it is also a very funny novel, something many of the literary elite would have you believe is incongruous or downright oxymoronic.
Jacobson’s latest novel J is a departure: from comedy to calamity; our world to another. It is also a novel that may have been considered indigestible by certain of the elite, resigned to the sci-fi fringe of dank cellar comic stores and retailers of Dungeons & Dragons had it not been written by such an accomplished author.
J’s plot focuses on Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen and Ailinn Solomons, two people who have fallen in love through serendipitous circumstances. The world they inhabit is familiar, and yet the adults of this time seem overly childish and infantile, quick to anger and easily capable of sharp brutality, a world much like ours but different somehow. The current downward trend in serious thinking we see in our world seems to have reached its logical conclusion in J; this is a world that is devoid of the difficult, not through mandate but the mood of the people.
Where Orwell let it be known that the clocks were striking thirteen from the first sentence of 1984, Jacobson does a great job of allowing the reader to blunder around in the shadows of the event WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED for a good part of the novel. Slowly he begins to illuminate the shadowy landscape through which the reader has unwittingly traversed, filled with chairs knocked on their sides, the broken shards of glass and pools of crimson liquid through which they have stumbled muddied with footprints.
Like 1984, Kevern and Ailinn and their romance takes centre stage, their romance acting as a catalyst, only this time there is a twist to the serendipity. Kevern and Ailinn are characters riddled with flaws and insecurities that act to pull the reader blindfolded into the labyrinth of their lives and the history that predated them. Just as the reader is submerged in ignorance, so too are the two protagonists ignorant of that which HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. As they begin to uncover more of their past, their future together becomes increasingly uncertain.
From a stylistic point Jacobson has almost completely omitted the letter J from his protagonist’s lexicon; three-hundred-plus-pages with few of the consonants to be found, and when they are unavoidable they are always conspicuous in their delivery. It is a motif that may seem cheap at first, but becomes quite poignant by the time the final page is turned; unbeknownst to the reader, Jacobson is smuggling his near future holocaust under their noses with bravura style.
J is a novel thoroughly deserving of its jacket blurb’s praise as a successor to Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. While the aforementioned dystopias (some may argue Brave New World as utopian) are somewhat removed from our present reality and clearly defined by their difference, J is only a slight shuffle to the right of our contemporary setting. The events that have created this world are so mysterious, so heavily obfuscated by Jacobson that many readers may only figure out exactly WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED mere pages before the novel’s denouement. While this may turn some readers away, those who are willing to spend time with the book will find a novel that is compelling and heartfelt, dealing with a sensitive subject through a uniquely fresh lens.
J is an important work from one of the great British satirist wordsmiths of the 21st century, a work of future catastrophe and apocalypse that belongs next to the likes of 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Road. J is a novel that embraces difficulty where the current trend is to favour the easy, shining a light into the dark parts of our world, the torch held aloft by a champion of modern literary culture as he moves from parody into poignancy.