Alongside Us, The Bone Clocks, and How To Be Both, J by Howard Jacobson was one of a number of novels longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in advance of its publication date. A source of frustration for some, I’m sure—though this has ever been the panel’s habit—but for others it represents a reason to update reading radars.
This year, I found myself amongst the others above, because if not for the nod, I doubt I’d have looked twice at this book. When I did, additionally, it was with some scepticism; after all, Jacobson has won the Booker before, for The Finkler Question in 2010—the first comic novel to take the trophy home in 25 years—and pointedly acknowledging former nominees is another of the panel’s practices.
Not today. J, I’m pleased to say, is in every sense deserving of its spot on the longlist. It’s a literary revelation wrapped in understated dystopian clothing; a wonder of wit and whimsy that takes in the chilling and the ridiculous—the hilarious and the horrific. That said, it’s a novel that requires rereading to appreciate completely.
Out of the gate, J gives every indication of being a bit of fun: not necessarily forgettable, but as slight as it is light. I caught myself thinking of it as the next best thing to a Shades of Grey sequel, not least because the tumultuous relationship it’s arranged around takes place generations since WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED: an event so obfuscated, initially, that the folks of this future can’t see the wood for the trees.
We aren’t any the wiser either… nor will we be for the foreseeable. But though the nature of WHATEVER IT WAS THAT MAY HAVE TAKEN PLACE remains frustratingly vague, its knock-on effects are evident in everything up to and including the text’s telling title: a double-crossed J to signify the sealing of Kevern ’Coco’ Cohen’s lips against the aforementioned letter. But why, we wonder, would anyone do that?
He didn’t know why. It had begun as a game […] when he was small. His father had played it with his own father, he’d told him. Begin a word with a j without remembering to put two fingers across your mouth and it cost you a penny. It had not been much fun then and it was not much fun now. He knew it was expected of him, that was all.
And that’s your answer: a nonsense now, yet in retrospect, singularly significant.
A great many equally strange behaviours follow from this first instance; behaviours normalised by the assumed rules resulting from the SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED, IF INDEED IT DID, like the silk runner our central character repeatedly rumples:
He had a secondary motive for shuffling the rug. It demonstrated that it was of no value to him. The law—though it was nowhere written down; a willing submission to restraint might be a better way of putting it, a supposition of coercion—permitted only one item over a hundred years old per household, and Kevern had several. Mistreatment of them, he hoped, would quiet suspicion.
And suspicion there is. From here, from there, from everywhere, and everyone. His “sentimental hankering for heritage” has already gotten him noticed—or so he supposes when a policeman investigating the murder of a former fling of his exhibits an otherwise inexplicable interest in Kevern. Unbeknownst to him, however, this Detective Inspector is rather into his conspiracies:
He began to question whether WHAT HAPPENED had in the end claimed any victims at all. Had it remained an undescribed crime all these years because it was an unsolved crime, and had it been unsolved because it was uncommitted? That made a great deal of sense to [Gutkind]. It explained why the world was not the happier place it should have been, and no doubt would have been, had what was meant to happen happened.
Also caught up in this conflict is Ailinn, the object of Kevern’s typically intense affection. “His eyes burned with love for her. Part protective love, part desire. She could look dark and fierce sometimes, like a bird of prey, a hunter herself, but at others she appeared as helpless as a little girl, the foundling picked out of a children’s home in the back of beyond.”
Readers wary of the male gaze will be relieved to hear she’s far from that, in fact. Though not so prominent in the picture as our protagonist, Ailinn is a markedly more attractive character than Kevern:
He had no family alive, no uncles, nieces, cousins, which was unusual in this part of the world where everyone was as an arm joined to one giant octopus. Kevern was joined to no one. He had no one to love or be loved by. Though this was to a degree occupational—like the moon, a woodturner turns alone—he accepted that it was largely a fault of character. He was lonely because he didn’t take or make calls on his utility phone, because he was a neglectful friend, and, worse, an easily dismayed, over-reflective lover, and because he was forty.
Dour and defiant, Kevern is somewhat one-note—if I had to find fault with the fiction I’d indicate his simplicity—whereas Ailinn’s origins as an orphan are but the beginnings of her charm and depth and complexity.
As individuals, then, they’re interesting, if not interesting enough to carry an entire narrative. Together, though, they’re easily able to take the strain. Never mind the warmth or the whip-smart banter between them, and forget, for a second, their shared sense of humour: the sheer thrill of their relationship in the happy times and the sad is so extraordinarily rewarding that it’s easy to ignore the story’s sinister overtones.
WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED is revealed eventually, albeit through an accumulation of allusions—as opposed to an explanation—which collectively cast the events of Jacobson’s latest in such a frightful light that an instant replay is practically required. Yet it’s Kevern and Ailinn’s ill-fated affair, as tragical in time as it is immediately magical, that readers will be drawn to the first time they make their way through J.
Reason enough in itself to update your radar, I dare say. It’s best you figure out the rest for yourself—revelling, in the interim, in your innocence.
J is available now in the UK from Jonathan Cape, and will be published in the US by Hogarth in March 2015.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.