Monday, November 17, 2014

Howard Jacobson's Booker shortlisted 'J': a remarkably good novel.

I've long been a fan of Howard Jacobson's work. He is a superb, probing writer whose prose sparkles with wit and comic exaggeration.

J, his latest novel, is far from being comic however. It was shortlisted for the Booker in 2014, and had it have won it would have been a very worthy winner indeed. It is a remarkable, serious and challenging fictional exploration of a society in deep decay.  
It's a melancholy meditation on history, community, family, and impoverished, stunted lives, all framed by Jacobson's continuing critique of Jewishness in all its vitality and social contribution down the ages.

We're introduced to a society of our time but denuded of all the splattered mud of history and development. A 'colossal social experiment undertaken to restore stability' has been put in place by a bureaucratic organisation called Ofnow, a 'monitor of the Public Mood'. Their job is to suppress memories of the holocaust referred to only as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. They try to manage and purify in the interests of harmony and well-being, and their tools are constant vigilance and surveillance. It is Orwellian in the extreme. 

The novel is an intellectual and psychological exploration of Jewishness and hatred: '..those who had been the object of WHAT HAPPENED weren't just any old, interchangeable excuse for civil riot, they occupied a particular, even privileged, place in the nation's taxonomy of fear and loathing'. 

Gradually Ofnow realises they've gone too far. Endless expressions of 'Sorrow' are backfiring. Raw human passion, prejudice and manifest evil can't be eliminated. The process must be better and more subtly managed. A society needs a deep and palpable enemy so a new and more insidious program is initiated - the rebirth of the Jew. 'What happened thereafter was a common tale of history repeating itself, one generation after another passing down its inheritance of shame.' 

But there were positives: an 'excitement at the prospect of a cultural rebirth - musicals with wit, reject-rock, hellishly sardonic comedies, an end to ballads...'

The intellectual richness of this novel cannot be overstated. On virtually every page Jacobson gives us long passages dense with meaning. You will want to read them over and over again to suck out all they suggest.

Truly, a superb piece of work.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Michel Faber's Extraordinary New Novel The Book of Strange New Things.

Here is the big book you should read over the Xmas/New Year holiday season. It is simply magnificent. 

It is such a rich, multi-dimensional novel: full of meaning and suggestion, which deepens its focus as it proceeds. Faber serves up a wealth of challenging ideas embedded in an absorbing narrative. And he seduces with beautiful, clear, silken prose.

The plot is simple enough. Peter is a Christian missionary selected to join a team of specialists housed in an enclosed facility on a distant planet. They are employed by a mysterious corporate outfit called USIC. Indigenous 'aliens' also inhabit the planet.

Peter is an embarrassingly unsophisticated God-botherer. Naive, simple-minded, and constantly sprouting theologically insipid, sentimental claptrap. Some readers will be put off by this, which is unfortunate as there is a substantial point to it which becomes clear as the novel proceeds. His job as part of the team is to venture beyond the complex to befriend and 'civilise' the natives so they cooperate and continue to grow food for the colonisers. 

Peter's wife, Bea (Beatrice), was disallowed by USIC from joining him on his mission. They communicate via email. As the narrative progresses these brilliantly written emails become the heart and soul of the book, and paint the passionate and increasingly feral Bea as a riveting fictional creation. There is enormous drama in their relationship. They love each other with an extreme, perhaps questionable, intensity.

USIC's residents, including Peter, were all damaged people in their previous lives - drug addicts, alcoholics, petty criminals, beggars, abusers. They couldn't handle the rough and tumble of the world and USIC provided an escape. The notion of escape develops as a major theme, suggesting too that god belief is little more than a vacuous coping mechanism, a psychological crutch. 

Some readers will question the way the novel ends, perhaps with a whimper rather a bang. But in my view it is perfect. Perfectly real.

I can't recommend this fascinating novel highly enough.