Howard Jacobson - J
Man Booker Prize-longlisted dystopian novel full of historical flashes of curiously little political mooring
Howard Jacobson’s J has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Though he won in 2010 for The Finkler Question, his publisher assures us J is unlike his others, explicitly encouraging its being named in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Unfortunately, this feels more like the attempt at the latest fad in dystopian fiction, burdened by the requisite high-brow literary fear of genre.
As is common in today’s crop of dystopian fiction, the world of J is divided between the past and current eras – demarcated by the ubiquitous undefined Event – in this case referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. Ailinn, an orphan, and craftsman Kevern, fall in love and attempt to mine the past, a task that brings an ever-present danger.
Scant world-building and a fleeting attitude to characters make entering this world a bit like dropping mid-way into a conversation. Flashes of a fascinating and rich history are peppered in but never satisfy, including glimpses of race, religion, and generational splits, with curiously little political mooring. The beating of women by men is the most resonant of these issues, but feels unrooted – a necessary evil of portraying a messed-up society and no more. Similarly, references to Moby Dick and the allegory of the boiling frog build in effect without context.
In this way, Jacobson’s dystopia is presented in ways most oblique – obscuring societal concerns that, language suggests, are rooted in our time. If this is literary fiction’s answer to dystopian or speculative fiction, an Orwell, a Huxley, or an Atwood it is not.