In Howard Jacobson’s Booker-shortlisted dystopia, one of the novel’s two main characters, Kevern Cohen, pauses to reflect on dystopias:
At school he had read descriptions of the Necropolis written by post-apocalyptic fantasists of a generations before. They were published as an anthology intended as light relief for the pupils, a propaganda joke showing just how wrong people could be when they let their imaginations – and their politics – run away with them. But the anthology was later withdrawn, not because the post-apocalyptics had been proved right, but because the truth was not quite the resplendent rebuttal of their vision it should have been. […] Kevern couldn’t remember what they were like, only that everything was like something else, as though what destroyed the city was not disease or overpopulation or an asteroid but a fatal outbreak of febrile fantasy-fiction metaphor. […] There weren’t any powerful similes to be made. Nothing was like anything. [pp. 132-4]
There’s a lot in this passage which seems of intimate relevance to J, a novel set in the indeterminate future of what seems to resemble Britain, following a cataclysmic event referred to by all the characters and the stealth-totalitarian state in which they live as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. It is hard to discuss the novel in depth without revealing the nature of this Armageddon, about which the novel is at first rather coy: so let me linger briefly on some of the more general implications of the paragraph above before moving, with warning, onto the more specific elements. That is, dear reader: you’re safe to continue, for now.
Jacobson has never been shy with his opinions about genre fiction. “I’m contemptuous of genre things,” he said to the Guardian’s Elizabeth Day around the publication of his last novel, Zoo Time. That J is a certain stripe of science fiction has surprised many, then. That it resembles in some ways the vagueness of Christopher Priest’s future Britain in The Adjacent, or that the Necropolis visited by the characters of J is a fairly obvious London analogue in the style of China Miéville, however, does not suggest conversion – and we can see that in the assumptions Kevern – and Jacobson – make about ‘apocalyptic’ literature: that it is all about analogy, that it is driven by ideology or authorial fiat, or that its purpose should be in some way to predict the future. Writers of literary fiction (“I hate the phrase “literary fiction”. I write fiction. The others write crap.”) are often accused of genre tourism, and the extent to which Jacobson seems ignorant of the rather deeper levels of thinking that have been reached in his chosen mode (let us avoid “genre” for his sake) does not help him avoid at least these accusations.
On the other hand – and this is true throughout J – there is also a keener wit at play in that passage. That is, it is not Jacobson or Kevern who believe these things about dystopian fiction: it is the state, a state which has also banned jazz and most other fiction (though not, for reasons that become plain, Moby Dick). Or rather, books have been gently encouraged out of existence, “the principle of group attitude” [pg. 14] carefully leveraged to ensure a sort of self-policed disinterest in questions and in alternatives (“in ignorance,” we read in deliberately sub-Orwellian mode, “is safety” [pg. 7]). That nothing is like anything is a rebuttal not of science fiction, perhaps, but of a soft-headed future which is primarily characterised by fear, by “the need to apportion responsibility” [pg. 108], and of intellectual inquiry (for example, the practice of history is discouraged, every household is allowed only one item older than a hundred years – although I wonder how many households outside Jacobson’s rarefied circle own antiques today).
Which brings us to the part where readers who would like to approach J as open to surprise as possible should stop. Because, in fact, perhaps some things are like other things (“saying what things were ‘like’ went with the apocalyptic territory” [pg. 133]). The state in which Kevern and Ailinn Solomons. the woman with whom he unexpectedly falls in love, live is a bankrupt one in every sense: its capital city is policed by a sort of undead elite, a moneyed class caught in the Necropolis at the time of the crash, and unable to leave without hollowing out their assets-in-stasis. They live in a world defined by a catastrophe which began on “Twitternacht”, and proceeded from a “hatred [that] exists outside of people” [pg. 158]; everyone has taken new names (“Call me Ishmael. Life had begun again” [pg. 149]), and refer to what happened, which some deny even did, in the passive voice – one character comes to insist that it should not be “WHAT HAD HAPPENED by WHAT HAD BEEN DONE” [pg. 225]). The “J” of the title is the letter Kevern’s father wouldn’t speak, putting fingers over his lips as he said the words jazz, Sammy Davis Junior, or joke. That is, of course: there has been a second Holocaust.
How much you believe J succeeds, then, may well rely on how much you agree that WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED could happen – or, more properly, whether it could happen in the way Jacobson describes. J reads like a warning, a shaking of the complacent: “When they come to get you,” one character sighs to another less anxious, “they won’t be making subtle distinctions. They won’t spare you because you’ve changed your name and happen to think differently from us on a few points. They won’t release you with a kiss because you think it couldn’t ever happen here.” [pg. 264] Nothing is indeed like anything, and the paradox of Holocaust studies – that they accentuate the local context of the Shoa, as if it could only have happened in Nazi Germany in the mid-twentieth century – does serve to offer Jacobson some considerable room to argue that it ain’t so. Science fiction, it emerges in the course of J, may well be the best way to apply a corrective: that a post-apocalyptic state bent on forgetting thinks otherwise is an argument in the genre’s favour.
Alas, Jacobson’s novel reads at times rather like, er, fable or allegory. His future lacks the kind of grit which makes it tactile: the village in which Kevern and Ailinn live is ostentatiously disconnected from the rest of the world, explicitly apart from it, and whilst this enables the events of the novel – which revolve around an oversight by the authorities one might assume a culture obsessed with forgetting might not make – it also makes the scenes which take place in the capital city feel entirely disconnected from the bulk of the book, as if taking place in a parallel world. That is, Jacobson’s chain of future events doesn’t quite hang together in a coherent way; it is hard to see how his cataclysm happened, and that makes it appear more like a device than the kind of allegedly over-specific apocalyptic fiction the novel’s authorities disparage. Jacobson is not a tourist – as far as he is concerned, he is not operating in any genre other than his own – but he is here inhabiting a space not quite the right shape for the activity in which he is engaged whilst there. That is, I believe in “the long history of torrid engagement” he sketches [pg. 81], but not the particular instance of it he posits.
In a writer of less assured a style, this would fatally undermine the whole project. But I rather think Jacobson is acutely aware of this irony. Certainly J boasts some fine writing and, in minimising some of Jacobson’s more egregious comic impulses, even some of the author’s most powerful passages. Many of the novel’s chapters proper are separated by short, italicised sections which appear to convey the events of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, and here the absence of fully-constructed history is made irrelevant by the immediacy of the prose: “where have all the hooks and crowbars appeared from? If the riots broke out spontaneously, how is it that these weapons are so plentifully at hand? Do citizens of K sleep with crowbars by their beds? They bring them down with gusto, however they came by the, on the head of a man whom others have previously rolled in blood and feathers. A ritual bath.” [pg. 105]
The potency of all this is hard to ignore, but so too is the way in which the novel falters on the details, is even ambivalent about them: its first part, all allusion and silence, is much more unnerving and effective than its second, when we are given more explicit knowledge. “Ahab is tailing us,” says Ailinn. “Ahab’s always tailing us. That’s what Ahab does.” [pg. 104] That feels more generalised than the German-speaking guards, Wagner enthusiasts or snow-bound trains of the later sections, and despite the apparent purpose of J – or perhaps because of the absence of the techniques we might expect to be used to meet that purpose – it is those more abstract sections which feel conversely more confident or certain.
In Jacobson’s defence, he knows all too well that the specific and the general are in a tug of war: “You let them win once you decide it’s immutable,” we read close to the end of the novel. “They have won already,” comes the reply. “They won a long time ago.” [pg. 326] That is, J is both allegorical and particular, and anti-semitism both universal and local. J walks a tightrope, and it stumbles without quite falling. In all this toying with the unusual and the specific, it unexpectedly ploughs similar ground to The Finkler Question, which emerges in the process as the more complete and convincing work. J is ultimately, and not entirely successfully, a novel interested in types – the pedantic professor, the lonely detective, the troubled collaborator are all present and correct – and yet it is also one engaged, with a little more bite, in arguing that they are dangerous. It is therefore confused, but not without purpose, and sits uncomfortably amongst any generic company you may wish it to keep, but rather knowingly.
Should it win the Booker for this awkward balancing act? Perhaps not – it may not even be as dexterous in its philosophy as Siri Hustvedt’s sadly over-looked The Burning World. But J is never what you think it is – it is never like anything – and in that way it is an intriguing fiction.