Who’s Sor­ry Now? A Novel

  • Review
By – November 6, 2013

 — that you’ve bro­ken your vow?” In Howard Jacobson’s wit­ty but ulti­mate­ly depress­ing expo­si­tion of rel­a­tivist moral­i­ty, the blue notes of that old lyric are deliv­ered not by just one betrayed lover, but by two wife swap­pers, both wives, and every­one con­nect­ed to them. A bro­ken — lapsed? — mar­riage vow can­not be put by, or con­fessed in earnest sor­row. Dia­logues among the prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters are wit­ty ver­bal duels, but the under­ly­ing dia­logue is between author and read­er. Jacob­son assumes a read­er­ship so well versed in the Eng­lish lit­er­ary tra­di­tion and the idiom of the com­mon man that he can rely on us to com­plete his ref­er­ences, as his prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters can rely on their spous­es to com­plete each other’s.

The four prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters are the two cou­ples — the hus­bands are life-long friends — who engage, in the one case, in nice sex,” indeed in nice” every­thing, being not only spous­es but also busi­ness and cre­ative part­ners (they co-author com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful children’s books) and, in the oth­er case (at least the husband’s) in ser­i­al sex, none of it nice, joy­ous, or designed to bring him any­thing but dis­ap­point­ment. This hus­band, Mar­vin Kre­it­man, uni­ver­sal­ly despised and clear­ly despi­ca­ble, is ulti­mate­ly the novel’s most sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter because, like Mac­beth, he knows from the start that his con­quests can­not make him any­thing but unhap­py. Mar­vin does love four women: his moth­er, his wife, and his two daugh­ters (with Shake­speare­an names). The moth­er brought him up to be Britain’s prime min­is­ter; but when he set­tled instead for his father’s grub­bi­ly hard-won mil­lions as the king” of London’s leather mer­chants, she despised Mar­vin for ever after, and was always avail­able to him to soothe him with a despis­ing he felt as mater­nal love. The wife, raised in the leg­end of her own inca­pac­i­ty, accept­ed Marvin’s largess and his absences from her bed as he kept appoint­ments with his five mis­tress­es, a feat of admin­is­tra­tive jug­gling that left him lying next to them with his mind in his appoint­ment book and his hands apprais­ing their skin as grades of leather.

Char­lie, the gen­tile hus­band of the nice” cou­ple (his wife’s name is also Char­lie, but Jacob­son steers us through that mine­field by let­ting us in on, and then des­ig­nat­ing them by, their pet nick­names) envies Kre­it­man his seem­ing cav­a­lier life and, under the influ­ence of alco­hol, goads him into agree­ing to the wife swap­ping he him­self can nev­er make nice.” The cou­ples are pre­sent­ed in nar­ra­tive word play of star­tling­ly insight­ful wit. Not so wit­ty is Nyman, a char­ac­ter of no char­ac­ter at all. Play­ing hide and seek among the oth­er play­ers, Nyman (No man), of inde­ter­mi­nate age, eth­nic­i­ty, back­ground, or ambi­tion — in Bea­t­les terms, a nowhere man” — is used as Jacobson’s avatar of amoral­i­ty to trig­ger all the oth­ers’ self destructions.

Who’s Sor­ry Now?, first pub­lished in Eng­land almost a dozen years ago, and divid­ed into three books and a Finale,” has a sim­ple plot: the build up to, the expe­ri­ence of, and the near restora­tion after — the swap­ping. Through­out, it offers insights to the dan­gers of mid­dle- and upper-class rel­a­tivist moral val­ues. But as we move toward some expect­ed restora­tion, the ver­bal pyrotech­nics begin to wear thin, and by Book Three they are some­what at war with the sor­rows into which we have been led. In the three-page Finale” we learn that for Mar­vin Kre­it­man there can be no restora­tion because he can only approach the self-despis­ing he knew before by invit­ing,” through sex­u­al masochism, obliv­ion.” After all that entic­ing by ver­bal sleights of hand, Jacob­son now ren­ders a kick in the gut and leaves the read­er to close the book in silence.

Alan Coop­er teach­es Eng­lish at York Col­lege, CUNY. Notable among his numer­ous con­tri­bu­tions to peri­od­i­cals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His lat­est book is the young-adult nov­el Prince Paskud­nyak and the Giant Bats.

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