Book of the week : Zoo Time - Howard Jacobson

Guy Ableman has much to be miserable about. He’s a boutique manager turned novelist, now living in London, and while his first novel was a success, his subsequent novels have been poorly received flops. His ‘readers’, who only bother to glance at his books now in order to dismiss them, despise him as a person and accuse him of hating women, children, morality - even common decency. His previous agent wandered into a blizzard after reading one of his manuscripts, never to be heard from again; his current agent hates his latest proposal and dreads being handed a good manuscript by any writer because it means having to find an editor to buy it. And Guy’s long-time publisher and friend, after yet another rant on the decline of the publishing industry and the death of The Book, blows his brains out in his office, surrounded by what he claims are endless stacks of brilliant, unsellable manuscripts

Guy’s vocation is being erased before his eyes. Writers, he states, “were all being written out of history. Was three-for-two to blame? Was it the celebrity memoir? It had all happened so quickly.” Tweeting and Facebook have replaced publicity. Literary parties have begun to resemble wakes, though “at a wake there’d have been more to drink, and fuller sandwiches”

It doesn’t help that his Vanssa, his voluptuous and wonderful wife, has decided that she’s going to write something of her own or that his wife’s mother Poppy, “vivacious as an apple orchard in a tornado” is sending decidedly un-mother-in-law-like vibes his way. Guy is in a bad existential state, and the world of publishing is going down the tubes with him

The obvious solution? Why, to craft an irresistible best-seller, a dumb and juicy confection that twists all the right knobs. It’s a lovely setup, one that affords Jacobson, never shy about skewering modern mores, plenty of opportunities to lampoon modern trends in the litbiz. He gets in digs at just about everything, in fact; for instance, we learn, courtesy of Guy, that novels about single fatherhood sell well in Canada “because Canadian women were so bored with their husbands that the majority of them ran off sooner or later with an American or an Inuit.” So fast and furious are the jibes that one wonders if Jacobson will have anything left to lampoon, but of course, the world has a way of providing targets for the careful satirist, and he’s an ascended master. His latest book, Zoo Time, is more fun than, say, Lucky Jim, and if some of its devices are more ephemeral, Jacobson is willing to take some big risks in the service of art, as when Guy muses of one of his confections, “I had to cheat a bit to get the Holocaust in, but a dream sequence will always make a chump of chronology”

Jacobson’s prose is hilarious, filled with disturbing energy. It swirls through the opening scene’s evisceration of an audience at a bookshop reading and Guy’s own self-lacerations, such as this one of a failed early romance: “Mishnah Grunewald . . . straight out of the Holy Land she seemed to come, without a trace of her family’s long sojourn in Eastern Europe on her, whereas I was as colourless as pewter, of the same washed-out hue as the Polacks who’d tormented her family for centuries, which is not to imply, for Christ’s sake, that I was a bit of a Jew-baiting Polack myself”

Guy swims in cesspools of desire, resentment, and paranoia. Does Vanessa suspect his designs on her mother? Is she herself having an affair with his twit of a brother? Confrontation is the norm in the world of Zoo Time, but direct confrontation is something Guy shies away from. “To intimate suspicion was one thing, to demand an explanation another. I was a novelist: I didn’t want an explanation, I wanted a spiraling narrative of uncertainty, nothing ever known for sure, the story going on forever.” That may be the case with the novel Guy is writing, but it’s not the case with Zoo Time, which has many unexpected turns, a well-executed arc, and an ending that may surprise you

Though it doesn’t possess the ferocity and heft of The Finkler Question, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, this literary novel about the death of the literary novel sounds comedy’s depths of sorrow and ranks among Jacobson’s finest

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