J – Howard Jacobson

This book was sent to me by Penguin Random House India in exchange of an honest review

It has been quite some time since I read a book that called for complete concentration to understand it. Howard Jackson’s J is not an easy book to breeze through. It takes around 20 pages to figure out the time period in which the book is set and that still get’s you nowhere near to understanding the beliefs and prejudices that guide the lives of the people in this fractured dystopia, or a utopia for those who created it, till you progress farther on.

The J with two strikethroughs on the cover is not just an artistic way of jazzing up a mundane alphabet, it actually refers to the way that the main protagonist, Kevern, refers to the letter J in his conversations in the book. Didn’t understand? Its pretty simple when you get to it – for any word that begins with J, Kevern obsessively places two fingers on his lips as his father once taught him to do. It is almost an effort to remove the alphabet from the conversation without actually removing it from the vocabulary.

Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen lives alone, is unattached, until he is introduced to Ailinn Solomons by a complete stranger, and is an extreme introvert and private person. He also manages to get himself embroiled as a suspect in a triple murder early in our association with him. His girlfriend Ailinn is an orphan and is no less paranoid than he is and just as serious about everything in life. Although not aware of the author’s antecedents, I was still immediately aware that the omission of the J and the commonly identifiable Jewish surnames of the characters must point toward a story about the continued prosecution of Jews in a dystopian future, even as I wondered why/how that would matter in a world where everyone is eternally apologetic and, more importantly, no one remembers the past anyway. But of course, not everybody forgets it seems.

The book is set post a social apocalyptic event known as ‘what happened, if it happened’, in a world where phones are rarely used, there is no social media or even phone messaging, everyone says sorry (whether they mean it or not), and art consists of only beautiful things and landscapes. Paranoia runs high and since getting angry is frowned upon it only seems to fester in the hearts of spouses, friends and neighbours leading to road rage and vicious skirmishes especially in the the village where Kevern resides.

The status of women seems to have been reduced to that of punching bags by many, and it is unclear why this bit of violence is not frowned upon. Perhaps, women are considered God’s way of providing natural punchbags for the frustrations that men harbour in this new world. Reading groups are licensed since books are, not banned, just not available. It is a ‘utopia’ where all external triggers of violence have been removed, referring more than once to ‘Twitter’ as an instigator in the past. A so-called perfect world, if you refuse to analyse or ask questions and thus managing to turn itself into the textbook definition of its antonym – dystopia.

This is one of those books that puzzle me. I can’t say I like it and, yet, I am quite sure I do not dislike it either. When that happens, I usually interpret it to mean that the author has managed to write something that has struck me deep within, shaken me out of my comfort zone, provoked me to think in a manner alien to me on a subject I would not usually bother about and thus deserves my respect, attention and admiration.

The book presents a unique setup for a story, the first of its kind that I have read in a long time, and thus is a novelty right there. What takes away the enjoyment of truly appreciating it is the long monologue after monologue describing persons/ characters in minute detail, no doubt bringing them alive but also making them seem the most boring individuals in the whole world. The story progresses oh so slowly, with soul crushing dialogues like ‘I am tired in anticipation’, with Kevern worried forever about being robbed and with Ailinn thinking herself chased by an invisible Ahab (Moby Dick), thus making sure that it pulls the reader down to the paranoid and dark world of its primary characters.

And yet, their love story is sweet. Here are two dysfunctional individuals who have finally found the perfect fit for their idiosyncrasies. The humour that the author throws in at every turn jolts one out of the stupor of the grey lives of the lovebirds and the villagers who surround them. And even as I professed to be bored by the long descriptions, I kept going back to the book over and over again to find out what happens next. There is something about the prose of the author that refuses to be dismissed as the over-indulgence of a superior mind in matters too philosophical. As matters progress and things become clearer for the reader they also become murkier for our protagonists. One roots for them in one breath and despairs in the other.

I would recommend this book to be picked up and read slowly. It presents an old theme in a new scenario, a more disturbing one. It seeps into your consciousness and makes you wonder and reflect long after you have left it behind. Give it time.

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2 thoughts on “J – Howard Jacobson

  1. I am in the middle of this book now, and still don’t know what to think. I’m just feeling my way through it, I guess. I am surprised by how much I like the main characters though and how badly I want it to work for them.

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