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.


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.




A review of “The Finkler Question” or how I contemplated a return to the synagogue

I cannot recall a book I have read that has moved me more to contemplate a return visit to the synagogue (I have not been back for many years), but I have an urge to do just that after reading “The Finkler Question”.

And not for religious reasons, though that may sound odd. But for nostalgia’s sake, to hear the old tunes and sing along.

“The Finkler Question” is a tragic-comedic novel written by English writer Howard Jacobson that won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2010.

“Finkler” refers to one of the characters – a popular jewish philosopher, writer and television personality called Sam Finkler – and also is the word used by Julian Treslove, the main protaganist of the novel, to describe all jews – he calls them “finklers”.

Julian Treslove, 49, is educated, intelligent and middle class, living in the part of Hampstead (a wealthy, predominantly Jewish suburb of North London) “that is not in Hampstead” – an often-repeated joke in the novel.

He regards himself, with a degree of complacency, as a failure of a man, as someone who never achieved much. He has two sons by different women, who left him before they gave birth (all women leave Treslove once they get to know him) and he has played no part in raising his children, and even dislikes them.

Once a radio producer of late-night music shows no one listened to on the BBC, he now earns his living impersonating celebrities like Brad Pitt, not because he looks so much like them, but because he does bear some passing resemblance to a lot of famous people, though no one in particular. An older American women who picks him up at a party, confuses him for Colin Firth.

The other principle character is Libor Sevcik, an 80-year-old Czech-born jew, former biographer of Hollywood stars who managed to resist the charms of Marilyn Monroe (she would ring him at odd hours because she could never figure out timezones), Jane Russell and other glamourous icons who confided and tempted him, and yet he remained faithful to his beloved, but very needy wife Malkie.

Both Sam Finkler and  Libor Sevcik are recently widowed. Finkler misses his wife Tyler, though not desperately (he regards having an affairs as an acceptable male compulsion) while Libor is deeply sad at the loss of his wife and companion.

The friendship between the three men is the central plot of the novel  as indeed is the notion of friendship, loss, guilt and loyalty.

But, at it’s heart ‘The Finkler Question’ is about Julian Treslove’s obssession with all things Jewish and his desire to penetrate, understand and become accepted into the mysterious but always scrutinised Jewish race.

He suffers the ignomy of being mugged by a woman in central London who he believes utters the words: ‘You Ju?” and comes to the conclusion that she mistook him for a jew or for his friend Finkler. But he can’t be sure.

The book really is about the “jewish question”. There are a number of anti-semitic incidents, which bring the idea of Jewish identity into sharp focus.

Jacobsen through his characters, is questioning what it means to be a jew in the modern age and all those things that bind one jew to another – the “jew-dar” as Treslove asks of his Jewish girlfriend Hephzibah.

And there’s all the other contemporary Jewish themes – Zionism, family, tradition and history explored in the stories of the three men.

And there is the food of course, which brings them all together, whether it’s the seder meal or the lunch prepared by Hephzhibah:

“‘What’s good,’ said Finkler “is this…” He reached for more of everything. Herring in red wine. Herring in white wine, herring in cream, sour cream, vinegar, herring curled around an olive with toothpics through them, herring chopped in what was said to be a new way and of course chopped still in the old…and then the pickled meat, the pastrami, the smoked salmon, the egg and onion, the chopped liver, the cheese that had no taste, the blintses, the tsimmes, the cholent.”

Treslove wants to be a part of this community.  But always feels excluded. No matter how many words of yiddish he learns.

He is forever the non-Jewish outsider – the goy, the gentile – trying to get in, marvelling at it all, such as when he falls in love with Libor’s grand-niece Hephzibabh:

“He thought his heart would break with love for her. She was so Jewish…For his part he was ready to jump right in. Then and There. Marry me. I’ll do whatever has to be done. I’ll study. I’ll be circumcised. Just marry me and make Finkler jokes.”

Alongside the humour, there’s the anxiety, the worry, and the guilt all beautfiully written by Howard Jacobsen in his wonderful prose.

And it is all these elements that make me think about being a jew, though I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue or even fast on Yom Kippur, I feel part of the community, like all Finklers.

The Finkler Question poses so many questions, it is about the mystery of being a jew and it’s that mystery that makes people want to be jews and to be rid of them in equal measure.

If there is one telling paragraph that sums up the book and what Jacobsen is trying to convey it’s this, as pondered by Julian Treslove:

“You could divide the world into those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews. The bad times were simply those in which the former outnumbered the latter.”

And sometimes, you want to feel connected again by singing the Shabbat songs in synagogue on a Saturday morning, or attend the Passover seder and swap stories of the exodus from Egypt and ask the Four Questions – whether you believe in God or not.