Howard Jacobson’s new novel is a satire on modern literary publishing seen through the eyes of a writer, Guy, who wants to sleep with his mother-in-law even though he’s married to a stunner famed for her casseroles and ‘street blow jobs’ (that’s what it says). Things happen in it not to feed the story but to feed punchlines: Guy’s agent dies backpacking in the Hindu Kush only so Jacobson can say that ‘a literary agent going missing was too common an occurrence to attract speculation’. The gag is typical for the sense of moral and aesthetic collateral damage left in its wake.
Overstatement is key to Jacobson’s style, as if he might become a comic writer simply by being a writer you can’t take seriously. The main character in The Finkler Question sleeps with women ‘so narrow he hadn’t always known they were there when he woke. He had to search the bed for them.’ In the new book, hyperbole is just a habit; it’s not even meant to be funny. Guy’s wife goes partying in Australia with ‘the Aborigines, the sound of whose laughter and brawling could be heard a hundred miles away’. ‘There was so much alcoholic vapour coming off her she’d have gone up in flames had I lit a match a hundred yards away.’
The problem with satire, as distinct from broader varieties of comedy, is that it only survives so much exaggeration. On the first page of Zoo Time, a woman at a reading group tells Guy that he’s a misogynist on the basis of hundreds of passages marked with small, sticky phosphorescent arrows pointing accusingly at the pronoun ‘he’.
‘What’s wrong with “he stroke she”?,’ she challenged me, making the sign of the oblique with her finger only inches from my face, wounding me with punctuation.
This is ludicrous, but not in the way Jacobson intends. We’re supposed to see the angry woman as an avatar of various cultural forces that diminish the market for Guy’s novels about his own sexual antics (i.e. serious literary fiction). Instead you feel she’s there to bubble-wrap Zoo Time against the accusation that it, too, might hate women, or at least not rate them very much. It’s telling that the ‘reading group’ where the exchange takes place morphs over the course of the novel into a ‘militant women’s book group’, before Guy complains, finally, of a ‘timorous society whose rules were made by women’s reading groups’.
The lack of proportion rots the novel from inside. When Guy’s publisher Flora (‘not Flora the margarine’) lets his books go out of print, he imagines fucking her ‘from behind, with my teeth in her neck and my claws in her belly. Quickly. Out of pure hate. In and then out and then in and then finish.’ Instead he writes a new novel about two women ‘raped on the same day by the same Biafran soldier’, journeying from ‘hellhole to hellhole’, ‘Sierra Leone, the Balkans, Afghanistan, I’m uncertain myself where I sent them’. Now women love him. ‘You know us so well,’ they swoon. A red rag, or just bull?