Zoo Time is another very funny, novel by Howard Jacobson, the writer of the Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question (read my review here) and The Making of Henry (reviewed here)
It’s the story of Guy Abelman, a once successful satirical writer, whose last book, Who Gives a Monkey? was loosely based on his relationship with a chimpanzee-masturbating zoologist at Chester Zoo.
Since then, he hasn’t written a bestseller in years. His books are out of print (available as ‘print on demand’ his new publisher tells him) and worst of all, making their way into the second-hand section of charity book stores.
Indeed this is where we first meet the middle-aged Jewish satirist: outside an Oxfam bookstore in the Cotswolds where he has just stolen a copy of his novel and been apprehended by the police.
Asked why he stole it, Abelman replies that he did not steal it but “released it”.
“The book as prestigious object and source of wisdom is dying,” he tells the constable.
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
In the Cotswolds to speak – or rather be heckled – at another writer’s festival (“The only character I identified with in your book is the one who died,” retorts one reader) Abelman believes the book is all but, dead, because no one reads books anymore, certainly not the clever literary stuff which once won him minor awards.
To confirm this depressing state of affairs, his old publisher, the terminally depressed Merton has just committed suicide, his final words being “Mmm” while his agent, Francis, does not even bother to restock his office bookcase with his old novels when Guy comes to visit.
The party’s over [Francis] wanted me to know. The age of sparing a writer’s feelings was past
To top it all off, Abelman desires to bed his sixty-something mother-in-law, Poppy while his frustrated wife, Vanessa wants him out the house so she can finally finish her own novel.
So badly has Guy run out of ideas, that the best he can do is tell Francis about his idea for a new novel: a plot based around his unrequited passion for Poppy.
If he’s sounding a bit like a neurotic, over-sexed Jewish character dreamt up by Woody Allen or Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David – albeit a very British one – that’s probably a fair assessment. And if you delight in that type of Freudian black humour and cynicism you will enjoy reading Zoo Time.
If not, I would suggest giving it a wide berth.
Indeed we spend the entire novel inside the head of the sentimental, lamenting and self-important Guy, who when he is not railing against the loss of his own cherished self-worth (even the Soho hobos are writing novels), is indulging in fantasies about where, when and how to seduce his mother-in-law.
For Australian fans of Howard Jacobson, who spent three years lecturing at the University of Sydney, there is the added pleasure of numerous trips Down Under, as Guy interrogates the collapse of his literary career.
Reminiscing about a trip to a writer’s festival in Adelaide (where a fat Nobel prize-winning Dutch author who wrote “slim novellas’ got a standing ovation despite not uttering a word on stage) Guy remembers his brief affair with Philippa, a young Kiwi lecturer and teacher of ‘Unglush Lut” who performed oral sex on him among the vines of the Barossa Valley.
“You novelists tell the story of the human heart,” Philippa said. You see what no one else can see.” She was holding my pruck as she was saying this.
He also recalls a West Australian outback road trip, where he travelled with his wife and mother-in-law from Perth to the tourist town of Broome, stopping on the way for them to swim with the dolphins at Monkey Mia and where he thinks about an alternative career as a stand-up comedian, he’s opening line being: “Take my mother-in-law – I just have.”
It’s a darkly funny book. Guy is a pompous, snobbish, egotistical ass, but I liked him a lot, not just because of his cynical, very Jewish view of the world, but because of his lament against the decline of book reading in the age of smartphones, ipads, Facebook and Twitter.
You only have to sit on a train and see how many people have their heads buried in their mobile phones compared with the few who are actually reading a book to understand the truth behind the black comedy.
Interviewed about the book, Jacobson said it was primarily a book about reading, not literary failure.
“We don’t read well anymore. It’s a bit risky, because you’re insulting your own readers. But you hope they will feel they are exempted from that general charge,” he said.
This charge is best personified in the character of Sandy Ferber, the new head of Guy’s publisher who tells him at their first meeting that there is a “historic opportunity to “rescue reading from the word” by creating ” a thousand story apps for the mobile phone market”
Bus-stop reading he called it. Unbooks that could be started and finished while phone users were waiting to call them back, or for the traffic lights to change, or for the waiter to arrive with the bill. In short, to plug those small social hiatuses of life on the run.