J by Howard Jacobson

jThis book left me baffled, confused, and more than a little angry. As the plot is boring and amounts to nothing, the only real interesting point of discussion occurs in the last twenty percent of the book and thus this review will contain some spoilers.

A great catastrophe occurs in humanity’s near future. Later titled WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, the details are lost as history, indeed any recollection of the past, is forbidden. Technology is frozen, and in some cases gone backwards. Internet and mobile phones are banned. Censorship has restricted all but the most empty and vapid of books, music. Movies seem to have disappeared. All this government-ordained. As a result, people have become rote and boring. They’ve settled for petty antagonism and widespread misogyny instead of their past industriousness. It’s an off-putting and honestly strange thought that the first sign of deterioration in this tightly controlled culture is men hitting women.

Fortysomething year old Kevern, a peevish and indifferent man with OCD tendencies meets and falls in love with ninteen year old Ailinn, whose defining characteristics seems to be a Moby Dick metaphor (she insists she is the white whale and Ahab is on her trail) and her unconvincing fondness for Kevern. The characters are all unlikeable and banal, except for Ailinn, who is merely banal. They’re self-aware and even have a conversation about their own meta-banality. They’re a sort of bland-distasteful unlikeable that does not evoke much genuine feeling. You’d hurry by them in the street or avoid them at work, not curse their name. Not the best anchors for a novel.

As I mentioned, the plot meanders for most of the book. Characters are introduced and have lengthy chapters dedicated to their point-of-view only to end with an irrelevant or complete lack of denouement. There’s a serial killer plot that goes no where. The town the story takes place in is featureless, which could be intentional, but like the intentionally bland characters, intent doesn’t make it any less boring. And then, and then, and then, after slogging through all this, the novel’s crux is revealed: WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED most definitely did happen, and what happened was some kind of mega-holocaust that almost entirely wiped out the jewish people. It turns out that Kevern and Ailinn are some of the very last descendents of the bare few survivors of WHAT HAPPENED. Not only that, they’ve only met due to some government agent’s scheming, and said agents have plans for them — make fruitful and reproduce, revive the jews. It’s an elaborate strategy to reinvigorate society, but altruism this is not.The plan is to return the jews to public consciousness to give people a target they can unify in hating once again.

High concept dystopian literature have clear themes, 1984 gave us Big Brother. Brave New World warned of consumption, escapism, technology. Even something like The Hunger Games elicits a clear and thoughtful point on entertainment and class.

J’s central dystopian thrust is this: society cannot function without xenophobia. Without some Other-group to hate, people become listless, beat their wives, seek pointless extramarital thrills. This is a weak thrust, but maybe defensible as part of a general philosophical notion people sometimes hold: that conflict is essential to human progress and happiness. But narrowing it down to hate is unconvincing. Especially in this world where society is bereft of basic happiness luxuries — technology, travel, history, literature, music, heirlooms, family, spirituality, identity, craft. Is hate really more valuable than self expression? Did no one think, maybe it’s the tyrannical censorship that is making people unhappy?

But what is much more unsettling and infuriating is that it is not any Others that people must hate. No, Jacobson’s horror-future exists, because it is specifically jews that the world needs to hate to function. The shadowy-government entities behind the novels plot have picked out Kevern and Ailinn to reproduce because they are some of the last living people descended from Jewish bloodlines. Bloodlines, a subject the books accepts uncritically and attributes great veracity.

Ailinn is dark-skinned; There’s a district in the Capital with Middle Eastern immigrants; Classism seems largely defunct; while the only mention of non-hetero sexuality is a father accusing his daughter of being a lesbian (negatively), there’s nothing else to indicate the world is particularly hostile to gays. All of the above peoples have traditionally served as scapegoats, objects of derision, someone to pointlessly hate or blame. But it is the Jews who need to be revived specifically to be hated to allow society to run again, for the happiness of all. It’s completely nonsensical in the narrative-built universe (and on real-planet-earth). It reminds me of the end of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead where the novel completely abandons all internal logic and characterization and cause-effect consistency just to make an ill-conceived point.