The word “Jew” does not appear even once in Howard Jacobson’s dark, urgent new novel, but Jews haunt its world. That world is an imagined England of perhaps the 2070s, in the aftermath of a nameless social cataclysm. Though set in the future, it sounds a warning for our own time.
A man and a woman meet, seemingly by accident, in a small coastal village. Who are they? They are not entirely sure themselves. Like everyone else, they know very little of their family history. Personal and national history has been suppressed; technology has been repudiated. Family names and place names have been erased and replaced in a national mandate called Project Ishmael. The result is that everyone’s new surname is something like Cohen, Solomons, Rabinowitz, Nussbaum, Heilbronn, Kroplik, Gutkind — but no one is Jewish.
At least, not any more. A couple of generations before, the question was “What to do with those about whom something needed to be done… foreigners who had what they called a country only by taking someone else’s.” The final solution, it can only be whispered, was a “campaign to drive them from the face of the earth, to make of them vagabonds and fugitives.”
What actually happened? It’s never talked about, but older people remember riots in which the victims were brutally, sadistically killed in their homes and in the streets. Others were forced to flee the country. Some called it Twitternacht because the mayhem had been propelled by social media. And, afterwards, the perpetrators told themselves that the victims had brought it upon themselves.
Despite the purging of collective memory and the consolations of what are called the Benign Arts (any other kind being discouraged), unfocused anger lurks beneath the surface. Something is wrong; something’s missing. “You can’t lop off a limb and expect you will be whole,” a few people realize, so behind the scenes there emerges a plan to recover something of what was lost.
The setting calls to mind P.D. James’ The Children of Men, in which a barren England lacks any sense of purpose until a one couple brings a glimmer of hope. The extrapolation of current problems to a catastrophic future recalls Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, in which a New York oblivious to climate change is engulfed by a staggering natural disaster. Jacobson is more ambitious in specifying the causes, rhetoric, manifestations, and after-effects of the devastation he fears could happen.
Reviews of J: A Novel often invoke the word “dystopian,” but many avoid naming what is hiding in plain sight. It is rare for a novel of ideas to possess masterful writing like Howard Jacobson’s and his perspicacity about the ways of men and women. Sentence by sentence, page by page, the language of J is a joy to read — not to mention the sly references to J.B. Priestley, Shakespeare, and even Allan (“My Son, the Folk Singer”) Sherman. This work is equally brilliant in its details, characters, and plot.
What lingers strongest, however — at least for a Jewish reader — are the searing glimpses of a future genocidal pogrom fanned both by popular resentment of Jews and by intellectuals’ anti-Israel vitriol. Never again?