Howard Jacobson once joked that one day he might attempt to write a book without the letter J, and his thirteenth novel J finally makes a wry nod to this past comment. A densely written and irrevocably complicated book, J—despite using the letter freely throughout—envisions a world in which it is all but eradicated, replaced instead with a strange hybrid, a J crossed with the silence of two fingers traced over it. Closer inspection of the book’s cover reveals this same crossing, suggesting that the novel isn’t really called J at all. This playing and confusion, even with the novel’s own title, reflects accurately the nature of this perplexing but intoxicating tale that will leave you second-guessing till the end.
We follow loosely the love that develops between a middle aged woodworker Kevern and the young artist Ailinn, and the trials that riddle their relationship, among them a murder in their village. In fact the initial investigations of the detective looking into the murder, a strange slippage into detective fiction, actually proves to be one of the novel’s most engaging parts. Often it’s in the relatively small and simple moments that Jacobson is able to show off most effectively; his eye for detail is certainly keen, from the brilliant description of a woman’s toes that opens the book, to the evocation of the sagging skin on a dying man’s face. One moment in particularly seems to stand out like a short story in the depths of the plot, the simple yet haunting portrayal of a marital squabble. The conflict is handled beautifully, an ‘exchange of unpleasantries’ that echoes the repeated patterns of married life. The repeated patterns of thought and life invade the very language and form of the argument itself, the scene moulded around the dilemmas and questions it addresses, switching from voice to voice, from exchange to exchange.
The loose allegory of the Holocaust the ‘what happened if it happened’ event of which no one speaks, haunts the dystopian world of the novel like a plague. This ambiguity, combined with the frequent references to the mysteriously elusive ‘they’ compound an uncertainty in the narrative that becomes practically commonplace for the reader. In the process of reading we quickly becomes accustomed to the ridges and upsets in the narrative, the nervous flitting between fact and fiction, between what has happened and what may have only been a dream, a memory, a shard of fantasy: they come together in shocking and spiralling collisions.
At times the intrinsic trickery that Jacobson sustains seems to lose its edge; although his style often borders on majestic, at other times it suggests pretension: those features that will annoy and grate on readers seem to also be the features that Jacobson is most anxious to highlight. ‘The art, they explained, when they could be bothered to explain anything, lay precisely in the offence’—much the same could be said of Jacobson’s novel, the confusion and disarray in it is deliberate and finely tuned. It’s something of which Jacobson is clearly aware, and yet unafraid of; temporal weaving and unweaving is important to the novel, which seems to be falling backwards and forwards on and over itself and the literary canon many times; a nod to Moby Dick is most evident with large epistolary sections revolving around an ‘Ishmael’ figure, but there are elements of many genres twisted around and played with—sometimes to the detriment of the narrative, but often to its enhancement. The narrator observes that art ‘for its adventuresomness, is also capable of being the most recidivist of human activities, forever falling back in reaction to what was itself a reaction to something else’, and this book seems to enact this absolutely; recidivist perhaps to the casual reader; but adventurous and ultimately brilliant for those who care to look closely enough.
By Thea Hawlin