Sunday, November 11, 2012

Howard Jacobson's Zoo Time

Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question.  I very much enjoyed this novel about Jewish identity, though it is not exactly a comedy, as it was billed.

His new novel, however, is a comedy Zoo Time is a boisterous satire of the publishing world. Jacobson inveighs against book groups, three-for-twos, blogs, tweeting, and the death of reading. Even if you're not in the publishing world, and I certainly am not, we all know vaguely about the merger of Random House with Penguin, print vs. e-books, defunct newspapers, and male journalists pronouncing blogs and tweets the end of civilization. 

The narrator, Guy Ableman, is a novelist without readers.  His first novel, Who Gives a Monkey?, was shortlisted for a prize, but things are going downhill.  He says it's because of the internet, his publisher's suicide, his feminist editor, and men who write popular novels about being dads.  

Guy's interactions with writing groupies and editors are trenchant and funny.  When he speaks at a book group meeting, the members ask him why he hates women so much. His feminist editor, who wears hiking clothes, tells him she is putting his books out-of-print because of print-on-demand.  He is arrested for shoplifting his own book from Oxfam.  It can't get much worse.

Much of the novel revolves around his loathing of the changes in publishing.  Here is one of his typically witty diatribes.

When did my books stop appearing in the bookshops?  Where did my oeuvre go?  My question was a general one:  every novelist in the country capable of writing sentences with conditional clauses in them was asking it.  We were all being written out of history.  Was three-for-two to blame?  Was it the celebrity memoir?  It had all happened so quickly.  Your work was on display in alphabetical order of title, spines showing...

Guy also dissects his personal lifeHe is married to a beautiful woman, Vanessa, who likes to give blow jobs in alleys.  But he is more attracted to his mother-in-law, Poppy, even though she doesn't know Mrs. Gaskell from Tolstoy.

Howard Jacobson
Guy is also writing a novel about being in love with his mother-in-law, though his agent warns him the publishers won't want it.  While he writes it, Guy fantasizes that Vanessa and Poppy are sleeping around.  On a trip to Australia with them, he goes so far as to put his hand on Poppy's thigh and makes sexual overtures after he kills a spider in her hotel room.  But it doesn't work out:  it drives Poppy away, and she moves out when they return to London.  

You can tell that Guy is both in love, and not in love with women.  He used to manage his mother's glitterati clothing shop, and knows all about how they dress, and loves them for it.  But the women have to be super-feminine and spectacular.   I do like Vanessa, she is  believable and wryly witty, and she doesn't spoil Guy, whom she needs to get out of the house so she can write.  And once he is out of the house, he calls a woman in Australia he had sex with at a literary festival and invites her to England (she refuses).  

Satires are eerie.  I recognized a couple of the composite characters, in a blurry kind of way, but I only know them from literary gossip in English newspapers.  There are passing references to Virago Books.  But what I noticed is that Jacobson is not really vicious when it comes to satirizing people.  It is the publishing world he scorns.

His sardonic voice can get tiring, but he is still one of the best and boldest writers I've read this year (thanks to catching up with the Booker Prize).  I do agree with much he says about publishing, from my limited experience with newspapers (going downhill if not gone altogether), new books (hard to find a good one), and misleading reviews.  If you're inspired by a fulsome review, you have to make very sure you read the last three paragraphs, because that's where the writer's reservations are expressed.  I honestly have better luck with blogs and bookstore websites when it comes to finding new books.  (Of course there are also some critics I very much respect.)  You don't want to end up with...well, I'd better not name the books I dislike.

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