“Perfectly Without Meaning”: Joshua Ferris’s “To Rise Again At A Decent Hour”

To-Rise-again-at-a-Decent-HourIn the comments of his perspicacious review of Howard Jacobson’s J, Adam Roberts quoth:

The ‘J-under-erasure’ is quite a powerful little rebus. But it’s also a little too slippery. I’ve seen people flinch when I describe my wife as ‘a Jew’, in a way that doesn’t happen when I describe her as ‘Jewish’ (what’s that Jonathan Miler joke? ‘I’m not a Jew; I’m Jewish. Not the whole hog’). It’s not exactly ‘the n-word’, but there is a valence to ‘the j-word’ that makes it tricky for use in polite society. Jacobson is saying: that’s an index of disgust rather than sensitivity — or he’s saying what the sensitivity is sensitive to is revulsion. I wonder about that.

I have thoughts on this whole discussion after listening to Jacobson extemporise about the novel in the flesh yesterday at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. In particular, he expressed a kind of relief that the moderator, David Baddiel, launched straight into the Jewish question: this has not, apparently, been the frame Jacobson has been using to discuss the novel elsewhere (for example, see his conversation with Stephen Smith on Newsnight). Baddiel rightly pointed out that in a real way this brings into the criticism of the novel its central conceit of denial and absence. The novel is about Jews – why the squeamishness?

This isn’t a review of J, however. It’s a review of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour:

“A Jew is sitting at a bar when a Jew-hater and a Jew-lover walk in,” he said at last. “They have a seat on either side of the Jew. The Jew-hater tells the Jew that he’s been arguing with the philo-Semite about which of the two of them the Jew prefers. The Jew-hater believes the Jew prefers him over the philo-Semite. The philo-Semite can’t believe that. How can the Jew prefer somebody who hates the Jews with a murderous passion over somebody who throws his arms open for every Jew he meets? ‘So what do you say,’ says the Jew-hater. ‘Can you settle this for us?’ And the Jew turns to the philo-Semite, jerks his thumb back at the Jew-hater, and says, ‘I prefer him. At least I know he’s telling the truth.'” [pg. 69]

The teller of that parable is Uncle Stu, a relative of Connie Plotz, the woman with whom Ferris’s protagonist, Paul O’Rourke, has fallen in love. Paul, a self-involved, under-fulfilled misogynist (“to be cunt gripped is to believe that I have found everything heretofore lacking in my life” [pg. 50]), has pored over the Talmud and developed a taste for kosher meat. He wants to become a Jew, to be a Jew, he even agonises over whether to use the word Jew. There is something false about this passion, of course. As he later realises, “I never really saw any of the Plotzes as people. I only ever really saw them as a family of Jews.” [pg. 150]

If this suggests an old-fashioned linear novel in which the main character Learns Something About Himself, you’d be right. If the thematic repetition between this novel and also suggests either a carefully curated shortlist or a narrowness of vision, we might lean one way or the other on the basis of Ferris’s book, which begins with O’Rourke thinking “golf could be everything” [pg. 5] and ends with him living in a kibbutz helping children. Despite Ferris’s reputation as an irreverent comic novelist, there is something earnest about this book which, curiously, makes it feel more straight-lacedly serious than a dystopian novel about a post-Holocaust Britain. There are lots of lovely moments in the book, for example in sections that deal better with the digital than most contemporary fiction, or which capture the modern workplace in the spot-on fashion for which Ferris first became famous; but all these individual elements do not really build beyond a flip picaresque into something coherent or cohesive.

Why? Paul O’Rourke is a dentist on Park Avenue in New York City, and his life is more or less empty. He chases women, not entirely successfully, and takes up a dizzying array of hobbies which he very quickly drops again. The only thing about which he is truly passionate, except for the Red Sox whose games he rather obsessively records on VHS and watches whilst eating the same meal of chicken and rice, is his work. Tellingly, he describes dentistry as the process of fighting decay: “A dentists is only half the doctor he claims to be. That he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself.” [pg. 4]  O’Rourke, then, is constantly patching up – painting over – death, for which he has no answer or understanding.

Into this environment intrudes a digital stalker. A website for O’Rourke’s practice appears without his knowledge, then a Facebook page and then a Twitter account. All of these begin to broadcast gnomic shibboleths which have the air of scripture, but which do not appear to be sourced from any known holy book. Finally, O’Rourke begins to receive emails, to which he begins to reply in a demand for explanation: “You’re the full measure of a man,” the elusive correspondent writes, “thoroughly contemporary, at odds with the American dream of upward mobility and its empty material success, and in search of real meaning for you life.” [p. 143]   One is meant, I think, to doubt much of this assessment, but meaning nevertheless sits rather awkwardly at the centre of Ferris’s novel.

After all, the meaning O’Rourke ultimately finds is fictive. The emails and tweets and Facebook statuses, it turns out, are designed to lead O’Rourke to the Ulms, long-thought-lost descendents of the Amalekites (“the ancient enemy of the Jews,” says Uncle Stu, “an eternally irreconcilable enemy”) to whose number O’Rourke purportedly belongs. The Ulms are, of course, fictional – and yet they lead Paul away from all the many meanings in the novel which do exist, all the very real issues upon which Ferris touches, towards a curious accommodation with the occult. In the LRB, Thomas Jones has written grumpily about this: “I’d like to be able to say that all this is a sly commentary on the invisibility of the Palestinian experience in mainstream American culture, but I suspect that it’s merely a symptom of it. The Palestinians get three passing mentions in the novel. […] The Bedouin – a real-life oppressed minority – are silent, shadowy, remote, picturesque; a blank screen for O’Rourke to project his psychodrama onto; far less real to him, and to Ferris’s novel, than the fantasy Ulms.”

This is a real problem. Even in a novel as supplely written at Ferris’s, it’s hard for the narrative to dodge and weave enough to get away from the ways in which it squarely avoids the very questions it sets out to ask. “Aren’t you capable of finding anything beautiful in the world?” O’Rourke asks his redoubtable hygienist, and one of the convoluted and mutually-misunderstanding conversations which have presumably led in large part to this novel’s reputation for being funny ensues; but what is the book’s own answer to its protagonist’s query? From the reclusive millionaire and fellow Ulm whom Paul falls in with – with satirical shades of Ayn Rand – to the wily old bookseller who finds the Ulmish scriptures – a bit of Michael Chabon – everything about this novel (as well as being unremittingly male in perspective) leads Paul and the reader further down a rabbit hole with no apparent escape on the other side. Is this the point? Maybe. Is it satisfying? No.

Ultimately, the book offers a limp escape hatch: “It is about people, not God.” [pg. 300]  This, too, is a phrase placed in the mouth – that site of much of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour‘s action – of Uncle Stu, and yet the gravity of the novel, its momentum, is always amongst the Ulms. This is not a novel without praise – the New York Times loved it, and in a wilfully impish piece in the Guardian today Robert McCrum says it should, but won’t, win the Booker. It feels to me, however, under-baked: perhaps that’s why even it’s much-lauded jokes fell flat for me, because a belly-laugh begins in the build-up. This is a smoothly written, but bumpily-executed, book, less wise than wise-cracking. It baffles me that this, rather than Siri Hustvedt’s expansive and eloquent The Blazing World, was chosen as one of US fiction’s first representatives on a Man Booker shortlist.

“Such A Strange Locution”: Howard Jacobson’s “J”

j_jacobson_coverIn 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 a country which 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 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 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 – 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 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 highly you rate J‘ssucceeds, 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. 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 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 – 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, 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.

 

 

“To Meet A Man Is Not To Know Him”: The Novel and Charles Dickens

"You know him, he's yours ..."

For a writer so proud of his dog-like tendencies when handed a bone, the late, lamented Christopher Hitchens changed his mind on at least one great issue of our day: not the Iraq War, which of course was an unalloyed Good Thing; certainly not the trifle of God, claims to the existence of Whom were a Bad Thing; but on the relative merits of TV’s finest Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens. Here he is on Dickens in an Atlantic article of 2010: “a vain actor-manager type who used pathetic victims as tear-jerking raw material, and who actually detested the real subjects of High Victorian power and hypocrisy when they were luckless enough to dwell overseas”. The acorn of admiration in that article, however (“there is something formidable about Dickens that may not be gainsaid”), had grown into a rather more robust oak by the time of his final column for Vanity Fair, published this month:

But imagine the power that Dickens had. By a few brilliant strokes of the pen, he revived and restored a popular festival and made it into a sort of social solidarity: a common defense against the Gradgrinds and the Bounderbys and the men who had been responsible for the misery of the Hungry Forties. For the first time, the downtrodden English people were able to see a celebrity, a man of wealth and fame, who was on their side.

This is the unacountable power of Dickens’s writing, of course, and it has been an influence, a sway, an accessibility, which his novels have – remarkably – retained over time. This year’s 200th birthday celebrations are so intense precisely because Dickens remains central not merely to the literary, but most importantly to the popular imagination. Or at least, this is my expalnation for the reason why Edith Wharton, whose 150th birthday was last week, has been so comparatively lost in the flood of Dickensia: for, with her supple style and acute psychological insight, her discipline and depth, is Wharton not the better novelist? Dickens is a chronicler, a Chaucer in stovepipe and cravat; his literary effect, it seems to me, is divorced from his form.

Take Our Mutual Friend, a book I read for the first time this month, as my own tribute to an author with whom I have never got on. Its pages are populated entirely by tools and tricks rather than characters: Mr Boffin, who exists in one state for most of the novel but, in order to enable an authorly flourish at its close, undergoes a transformation (or rather, reveals we never knew him at all); Eugene Wrayburn, the chancing young lawyer metamorphosed from uninteresting walk-on to uninteresting romantic lead; and Lizzie Hexam, the impossibly virtuous and eloquent daughter of a querulous, tyrannical waterman.

These are types, of course, and ones Dickens used more than once. Even his symbols and imagery are taken from the literary equivalent of clipart: the river standing both for death and rebirth, the cripple for incompleteness. Dickens’s particular vitality is instead that of episodic wit, of well-turned bon mots: “No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.” But even that sentence-for-the-ages focuses on the surface of things – on looking, on what people are, on unopened books for heaven’s sake. In a work about the brittleness, the untrustworthiness, of surfaces – two prominent characters are Mr and Mrs Veneering (geddit?) – perhaps this is fitting. But the novel’s art has been to burrow under. Dickens’s dioramas are too artfully arranged for him to disturb.

Not that this renders his work inert – far from it, Dickens continues to speak to us despite – because of? – his formal kinks. “As is well known to the wise in their generation,” he writes apparently yesterday, “traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Shares.” We might also add, “have opinions,” and, oh, how Dickens does. Reading Dickens – as opposed to Hitchens’s (laudable) Victorian preference, George Eliot – is to leave behind subtelty and sinew in favour of breadth and muscle. One might see, in the ecumenical cast of his novels, something of Shakespeare’s commitment both to the highest and the lowest; but where with even the rudest of mechanicals Shakespeare insists upon shades of meaning, for Dickens his boys with their bootstraps always insist upon one meaning, his old roués another.

This leads Dickens to make statements of authorial fiat which read at first as true and then, on reflection, as anything but: “The person of the house,” he writes of the doll’s dressmaker where Lizzie finds sanctuary following the death of her degenerate progenitor, “had attained that dignity while yet of very tender years indeed, through being the only trustworthy person IN the house.” Ah, yes, smiles the indulgent reader; wait, no, frowns the cynic. The novel is for Dickens a laboratory, a place to conduct experiments: real life has no sway here, and this is the root of the Jamesian criticism of his art. It is not one with which I hold much truck – Dickens never claimed to be a realist – but it goes some way to explaining why I have never got on with his novels as novels. Our Mutual Friend is a one-sided disputation, in which Dickens sets the terms of reference to arrive uncontested at the conclusion he lays on the line thus, in an appraisal of the (for the most part, until she isn’t anymore) unpardonably conceited Bella Wilfer: “the spoilt girl: spoilt first by poverty, and then by wealth.” Self-improvement, in the darkening days of a late work by a past master, is no end in itself. We are pummelled for a thousand pages to this end.

All of which is to howl at the moon. Dickens is far-sighted and wise. He prefigures Eliot – “The set of humanity outward from the City is as a set of prisoners departing from a goal” – and he revises Shakespeare himself – “they take the worst of us as samples of the best,” opines the kindly money-lender, Mr Riah; “they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say ‘All Jews are alike.'” The Hitchens of 2011, too, gives the great man his due: Riah is, like so many of Dickens’s sentimental totems, “almost too altruistic to be true, but it says something for Dickens, surely, that he would take someone who had the same occupation as the infamous Shylock, but none of Shylock’s vices, and insert him at the heart of business, at a time when vulgar prejudice was easy to stir up.” Quite so, and if Riah is again an example of Dickens allowing thesis to mar form, he is nevertheless a powerful (if limited) argument for why we still need him – although, I might argue, we should read him differently.

To which end, I’ll be tackling Great Expectations for the rest of the year. First published over nine months between 1860 and 1861, I’ll be following that schedule. What I hope is that reading Dickens occassionally over a longer period of time, as he wrote to be read, will better enable me to appreciate his strengths and forgive his trespasses. In a recent piece for the Guardian, Howard Jacobson wrote, “You don’t have to like Dickens. Literature is a house with many mansions. But if Dickens gets up your nose, as he clearly gets up the BBC’s, the question has to be asked why you simply don’t leave him alone.” I’ll take this permission for my philistinism and run with it. In answer to Jacobson’s appeal to my raging, disdainful, impotent frustration with Dickens, however, I’ll return to the Christopher Hitchens of 2010: “I can still think in this way if I choose, but I know I am protesting too much.”

 

Peter Carey’s “Parrot and Olivier in America”

 

 

There are National Trust properties up and down the country which, in their piecemeal, potted restoration have become something less, something more dislocated, than a single house: there’s a Regency bedroom, there a Renaissance kitchen; look closely, and up the stairs from the rococo balustrades will be the severe Victorian lines of a droll drawing room. Every corner will have a story slightly out of synch with the others – and, inevitably, the visitor will enjoy some rooms better than others, may even find a couple thoroughly divine, but exit to the tea shop feeling if not underwhelmed then certainly confused.

This is the experience which awaits the reader of Peter Carey’s latest, Parrot and Olivier in America. At its heart is the sort of recreation of historical voice that Carey has made his own, and ultimately this is its only unifying project. The novel doesn’t have much in the way of a single plot, nor anything approaching an enforced coherence; its principle pleasure is in the reiteration, in each of its constituent moments, of an historical perspective. This is not to say historical accuracy, of course: Carey riffs too freely on Audobon and de Tocqueville, reprints out of context too many documents from the period, ranges too widely and wildly across continents, to establish a definitive history. Carey’s project is, of course, more of the imaginative variety, and in this he may be the consummate novelist writing today.

This bifurcated novel’s twin, eponymous voices are of the venal and the upper classes. Parrot, an Englishman with a storied and shady past, find himself, as a result of a series of political and probably criminal coincidences Carey never quite unpicks, accompanying Olivier, a French aristocrat whose family has fallen out of favour, to America, where the latter is to inspect American prisons on behalf of the French government. Their relationship constitutes the bouncing off of almost wholly incompatible perspectives: Olivier’s privileged, pie-eyed nostalgia for feudalism, Parrot’s over-awareness of the corruption of elites. In their trip to the United States, of course, they come face to face with the future, in the form of democracy. At one point, Olivier discusses Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People with Peek, an American he initially considers a friend, and in particular the pistol-toting boy at its centre, whom Olivier finds “vile”. Peek tells him:

“He will end up president. […] As Americans we must allow the possibility. He may simply end up rich. My dear Olivier, this is not your ancient France. But if it were, that boy – if he showed similar initiative – might take possession of half the lands along the Loire. If he works hard. There are countless acres of American owened by no one, waiting to be taken. You want our American Avignon, it is empty. It is yours. I give it to you.” [pp 227-228]

This is the world that scares Olivier – one of opportunity and fluidity. But it is also one of which Parrot is sceptical – its promises of emancipation and elevation seem to him hollow and self-serving. Carey’s thesis about democracy never seems to get beyond such sterile extremes of characterisation, although it allows him some humourous scenes: Olivier listening to one American mathematicise society, Parrot providing snide asides about one popinjay or another, power relationships dramatised in the watery rescue of a fine edition of Molière. Other episodes are as diverting but decidedly less relevant: Parrot pretending to be a rabbit, a glorious interrogation scene featuring a poor forger and a bedecked Lord, Olivier in his boyhood learning his Latin. Indeed, Carey seems strongest in these more picaresque moments, and the novel should be seen in this light. It’s hard to see what grand statement, or unified novel, Carey wanted to stitch together between these two characters and their shapeless roamings; Parrot and Olivier in America is rather a sort of modern Humphry Clinker: ribald, itinerant and full of incidental incident.

So where does that leave it in the Booker stakes? Some way behind, I think: though some pages of Parrot and Olivier are more fun, more wryly wrought, than anything else on the shortlist, others pass by in something of a miasma. Carey pitches the twin voices just so, but perversely his novel never seems to find one. This leaves, it seems to me, In A Strange Room and C to duke it out for the prize. The Finkler Question is as fine and spry a novel as any, but though it’s a masterfully turned comic novel it lacks the formal inventiveness of Galgut and McCarthy’s efforts. C may ultimately make the grade, its mixture of sardonic humour and serious intent resulting in a remarkably rich – if intermittently featureless – tapestry, all competing strands and difficult textures. In A Strange Room, by contrast, is simply a perfectly melancholic miniature with nary a word out of place.

Comedy, tragedy, or fractal farce: place your bets, we’ll know tonight.

Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question”

The Finkler Question has been good to me. I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in hospitals these last couple of days, and that enables long chunks of reading time. Thankfully, Howard Jacobson’s latest novel – short-listed for the Booker Prize, of course – has been intelligent, amusing, erudite company. It’s a beautifully composed piece of work, enquiring and fully whole in terms of character, vision and theme. If it is a quintessential Booker book – all bourgeois interiority and well-meant handwringing – it is also quite other – a comedy, for starters, but also an avowedly specialist book, one which on the surface entirely eschews universalist preaching for a tight and unyielding focus on a single small group.

For Julian Treslove, whose name is a fairly obvious pun on his habit of serial monogamy, a Finkler is a Jew. He has named them so after his schoolfriend Samuel Finkler, now know as Sam to the many readers of his hugely successful series of pop psychology books (Descartes and Dating, for instance, or The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better Sex Life). What makes Treslove’s selection of Sam as the emblem of a whole ethno-religious grouping problematic is that, in his abandonment of ‘Samuel’, the philosopher has in turn symbolised a fierce frustration with – a broad distaste for – his fellow Jews, and in particular for Israeli Jews and Zionists. The pair’s old schoolteacher, the Czech ex-Hollywood journalist Libor Sevcik, argues with Finkler frequently about such topics – he survived the middle of the twentieth century, and this colours his view of the twenty-first.

Thus the stage is set for the novel proper, which begins in earnest when, on the way home from an evening at Libor’s during which the two Jewish widows and the Gentile singleton comiserate and dispute, Treslove is mugged. The complication of this mugging is two-fold: first, Treslove is convinced his assailant is a woman, and women are a source of considerable trouble for him; and, second, he comes to believe she accused him of being a Jew. Being “a man who did not function well on his own” [pg. 6], Treslove exhibits a terrible need for a tragic other, and this dual trauma exacerbates this need. The Finkler question comes to be, for Treslove at least, how to become one – how to be accepted into a group which offers a ready-made tragic history, an ersatz justification for “a man who ordinarily woke to a sense of loss.” [pg. 47]

For Finkler himself, the question is a much different one: how can one escape that weary self-awareness? For Libor, meanwhile, it is about living with it, about finding a way of managing an acute sense of all that has gone before you, all that has made you who you are – and whatever of you may be left when you go. This is why Jacobson is only superficially interested in the question of his title. In the Jewish Chronicle, Jonathan Freedland has suggested you might need to be a Jew fully to appreciate the novel; on one level, on a very important level, this might be true. On another, however, it is manifestly false: in the love affairs and museum openings, the dinner dates and holidays, of this novel of incident, Jacobson is on the trail of something broader – but also much narrower – than Jewishness alone.

The Finkler Question is certainly all about self-definition and self-absorption, about identity and the lack of it (Treslove works as a celebrity lookalike – he looks a bit like a lot of them, and therefore he’s in high demand), about how we choose whom we choose to blame for one thing or another (“say ‘Jew’ and it was like throwing a bomb” [pg. 186]), or to love for one reason or another (and in one way or another). Jacobson’s subtle and sympathetic characterisation provides ample and holistic scope in which to present a myriad iterations of his theme without repeating responses or dictating results. It’s a tour de force of literary imagination, a thorough examination of theme, but – crucially – also confoundingly inconclusive. In a word, it’s lovely.

Some, however, disagree: Kevin from Canada, in an excoriating post, wrote that the book “has no place on the Booker longlist. It is dreadful. I don’t rubbish books on this site, but this is one that deserves the full rubbishing.” I expect I missed an awful lot about the novel given the environment in which I read a lot of it, and yet I found infinitely more in it than Kevin believes there is. It is supply written, very often invisibly so, and the intellectualism which Kevin found so irksome I found both humane and gentle. Partly as a result of a conversation over at The Asylum, Kevin has formulated the theory that unless you find the opening of the novel funny, you will not like it. I do not disprove his hypothesis: I found parts of the first section, and indeed of the rest of the novel, laugh out loud funny. Jacobson includes everything from delightful dialogue to broad farce, and he carries it all off with prose which contains both the major and the minor voice. This is in my book writing very far from dreadful.

The Finkler Question has a line to remember on every other page, and I suspect a scene to stay with you in every chapter. Here is a small canvas with preternatural depth of field.