The end of reading: Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson

zoo-time-coverZoo 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.

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Howard Jacobson

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.

 

 

 

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The kindness of strangers

customer complaintsThey say the retailing environment is tough at the moment.

The online world with its free shipping, discounts and gimmicks is really biting into “bricks and mortar” shops selling books, CDs, DVD and just about anything else you don’t have to eat or drink.

Even clothes.

Who would have thought that so many Australian consumers – men and women- would be buying entire wardrobes online?

But they are. Companies like UK-based fashion house ASOS are selling so much merchandise to Australians they’re having to fly in two jumbo jets a week just to fit everything in.

Anyway, I digress.

This week, amid this tough retailing environment, a complete stranger did me a favour.

I was in an ‘All Books 4 Less’, one of those discount stores that sells books for $5 and $10.

I picked out a book for my wife as a present. It was a nice book on crafts.

It cost $1o.

I walked up to the register and nice young woman scanned the book and told me it was $10.

I took out my wallet and handed her my debit card.

She pointed to the sign behind her and shook her head:

“Minimum EFTPOS transaction is $15” it read.

I shook my head and scrounged around in my wallet for a $5 note. Then I emptied out my front pockets and my back pockets and came up with a few dollars more.

She stared at me, smiling awkwardly, as I scrounged around in my bag for coins.

I laid everything out on the table and counted.

It came to $9.95.

Surely she would not begrudge me 5 cents?

“Oh I am sorry” she told me. “It is $10.”

“But surely…”

“No, sorry.”

I glared back at her. Indignant. Then I searched again in my bag and then in all the pockets of my jeans and then in my wallet.

Nothing.

“You’re being ridiculous,” I told her, the anger rising.

“I am sorry, the manager will see there is money missing.”

“But it’s five cents”

“I am sorry”

“You’re being ridiculous”

“I am sorry”

She suggested I walk to the nearest bank.

I searched through my bag, my pockets, my wallet again, refusing to move.

She watched me.

“Perhaps you can buy another book so you spend $15?” she suggested.

“I don’t want another book,” I replied.

Then a woman came up behind me to pay for some books.

I told her why I was standing at the counter with the contents of my bag spread out before me.

She frowned.

‘You wouldn’t have 5 cents would you?” I asked her.

She smiled, opened her purse and took out a 5 cent piece and gave it to me.

I thanked her.

I gave it to the woman behind the counter.

I left with my book.

I calmed down.

Reflecting back now on this, I have to ask: Has the retailing world gone mad?

Is this how you treat customers when you’re competitors are selling the same products at half the price?

But it seems it has.

There’s the story about the health food store in Brisbane charging customers $5 “to browse”  because the owner was apparently unhappy with giving customers advice, without the guarantee they would buy anything.

This is not an isolated innocent. In Newcastle (NSW), a shoe shop is charging customers $10 to try on shoes.

In both cases, the money is deducted if the customer makes a purchase, but who would bother putting up with this kind of attitude? Half the fun of shopping is the ability to browse.

And is this the best solution these two businesses can come up with to arrest revenue lost to online stores or cheaper competitors? Smacks of desperation. These businesses won’t last very long.

Such contempt for customers is happening at the top of the retail food chain as well.  Recently Myer managing director Bernie Brooks, suggested it would not be a good idea for taxpayers to fund the national disability insurance scheme (NDIS) because it would cut into the money people may spend in his department stores.

The social media backlash was brutal.

And let’s not forget another grumpy old retailer, Gerry Harvey, founder of Harvey Norman, worth close to a billion dollars, who loves to complain about online retailers stealing his business, Then he launched his own own online store.  Of course he is still loves running those “23 month no interest, no deposit, no repayment” dodgy offers that cost unwary customers hundreds of dollars in extra fees and other costs.

The fact is there are plenty of traditional retailers making good money because they know how to sell their products, sell the right kind of products and because they treat the customer as king.

This is just as true in the de-personalised online world, where for example the Book Depository charges no shipping fees at all even for international purchases.

So here’s a suggestion for the people at All Books 4 Less and every other retailer grumbling and looking to gouge their customers, even for a measly 5 cents.

Don’t argue with us. Don’t try and wrestle our money from us.

Treat us like old friends. Make us smile and we’ll keep coming back.

And remember that old saying: the customer is always right.

Even when he’s wrong.