J: A Novel

  • Review
By – February 2, 2015

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 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?

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