"My aim," writes English novelist Guy Ableman to his agent, "is to write a transgressive novel that explores the limits of the morally permissible in our times."
Sounds quite serious, even brow-wrinkling, doesn't it? A dangerous act of experimental writing, perhaps something Norman Mailer might have tried, or Henry Miller before him?
Except that Ableman — the narrator of Howard Jacobson's odd new work of fiction — sees the joke in it. "Who are the great blasphemers of our age?" he asks. "Not poets and writers ... My hero is a stand-up comedian. First line of novel, he walks on stage, says, Take my mother-in-law — I just have ..."
Revising a bit of stand-up schtick by the great American comic Henny Youngman may not be the classiest aesthetic value in the world. But it gives us a sense of the narrator's deep desperation about his vocation, his career, his very life in an England, in which, as he sees it, literature is dying off faster than the Arctic iceberg melt. We learn fairly early on in the novel that the agent to whom he is addressing this note behaves like Major Major from Joseph Heller's Catch-22. He hides from his clients, hoping they won't give him new manuscripts, because in the world of letters as Ableman depicts it, the few readers who are left don't read anything serious, and serious publishers, such as Ableman's, commit suicide.
Moreover, the joke on which Ableman builds his narrative, his obsession with his busty mother-in-law, Poppy, and his hit-and-miss marriage with his (novel-writing) flame-haired wife, Vanessa, grows darker and darker. Though Vanessa remains a constant tease, and Poppy a somewhat unbelievable object of desire for the professionally and sexually frustrated writer, the clownish Ableman becomes ever more serious in his quest to complete his new book against the backdrop of a publishing industry disintegrating by the hour.
In the end, the joke is on the reader. Despite the writhing and wrenching (and wenching) that Jacobson puts his narrator through, the story winds down from the comical into the pathetic. It comes nowhere close to putting us into anything resembling the near-hysterical, laugh-out-loud state you can sometimes find yourself in while reading certain novels by Stanley Elkin or Philip Roth. As that overly employed apothegm would have it — the one ascribed to at least half a dozen comic actors on their death beds — dying is easy, comedy is hard. Even in the hands of a polished and practiced Booker Prize winner like Howard Jacobson.