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.

 

 

 

Jewish humour and shame: why I loved “The Making of Henry” by Howard Jacobson

henrynewIt’s hard to say exactly why I enjoyed reading Howard Jacobson’s 2004 novel “The Making of Henry”.

Not a lot happens throughout its 340 odd pages. The reader is largely stuck inside the head of retired English lecturer Henry Nagel, 59, Jewish, morbid, mildly misanthropic and with little libido (His chief love was his aunt, Marghanita, who introduced him to books).

After an utterly unremarkable career as an English literature lecturer at an undististinguised academic institution in the Pennines (where his chief accomplishment was to have slept with most of the wives of his friends and colleagues – and to have published virtually nothing), he finds himself living alone in a grand old St John’s Wood apartment, given to him for life by a mystery benefactor, whom he assumes was his father, Izzy’s, mistress.

This is just one of his many ruminations.

It might have all been so very different for Henry if his estranged best friend and rival Osmond “Hovis” (because his head was shaped like a loaf of bread) Belkin hadn’t called him a “girl” on their first day of grammar school or if his father hadn’t chosen a career as a fire-breathing children’s entertainer or if Henry had had plan for his life or a desire for one in the first place:

“I’ve cocked up my life.” Henry told himself, early on the first day of his first term as an assistant lecturer at the Pennine Way College of Rural Technology. That was not simply a description of what had happened, it was also a statement of intent…”I’ve cocked up my life”, as Henry inflected it, also contained the meanings “I will have cocked up my life” and “There was never a time when I wasn’t going to have cocked up my life.”

Not exactly an inspiring figure, but in my eyes the true Jewish male intellectual anti-hero.

Without any real ambition, without any noteworthy achievements, great wealth, wives or children (the standards by which many Jewish men are judged) Henry obsesses over his own mortality, finds his life to have been mostly pointless, but who drudges along anyway, holding out a flicker of hope that some meaning or purpose may yet come, even at this late stage.

He encapsulates what Alvy Singer, the neurotic main character in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall means when he says, telling an old joke, that: “Life is full of heartache and misery – and over far too quickly.”

Now 40 and wondering how I got here so fast or where the years went,  I could relate to this passage (though not quite so morbidly):

Does Henry feel, then, that his has been a disappointing life? No. Henry feels his has not been a life….There was his childhood – say from zero to twenty-one; all right, say from zero to thirty – then whoosh! (he teaches, he is borrowed by his friends’ wives, he resigns, he moves to St John’s Wood, he meets a dog) and suddenly it’s now.

Where has the time gone? What have I achieved? Is it too late? Should I be ashamed? What would my parents think of me now?

Howard Jacobson has been celebrated for being the unofficial laureate of the Jewish male persona and in ‘The Making of Henry” he has  unearthed many of its characteristics.

Also, ‘The Making of Henry” made me laugh out loud, particularly at Henry’s interaction with the outside world, of which his experiences are mainly bad, shameful or unsatisfying.

In one scene, Henry, reluctantly agrees to walk a friend’s dog, who then pisses against the tyre of a BMW:

“Hey!” someone calls.
Neither Henry or Angus (the dog) take any notice.
“Hey! I said hey!”
Henry looks up. They are outside Bar One or something similar. A man in shiny metallic suit…is standing in the doorway, pointing rhythmically. He is on his mobile phone, and expects Henry to put up with his half attention.
“Your tyre?” Henry wonders.
“My wife’s tyre”
“Well I’m sure she drives through worse.” He does not intend to apologise. Not on Angus’s behalf. For Angus, Henry will now lie on a bed of broken glass.
The man goes on shaking his finger. “You should know you’re not  to let dogs foul the footpath.
“That’s not the footpath. He wants the gutter, but your wife’s car is in the way. And on double yellow lines.”
“In the way! You shouldn’t be walking him here at all.”
“I take my dog,” Henry says, “For walks where he wants to walk.”
“And my wife parks where she wants to park.”
“Then your wife and my dog have much in common.”

Henry may be morbid and depressing, but he is also witty,darkly comic, free of the burden of being polite, considerate and nice.

Salvation, and a re-awakening of  Henry’s  loins comes when he meets  and falls in love with flat-shoe wearing, yet flirtatious, Moira, the Eastern European scented waitress who serves him his coffee and cake at the Viennese pâtisserie he frequents on the St John’s Wood high street.

It is Moira who brings Henry back to the world of the living and literally snaps him out of the moments when he disappears into his own head and thoughts about his dead parents, or lost friendship with Hovis Belkin.

So, really, The Making of Henry is a love story.