Book Review: 'J'
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Tomorrow, the Man Booker Prize winner for fiction will be announced in London. Howard Jacobson has been shortlisted again for his latest novel, "J" - as in the letter J. Oddsmakers don't list Jacobson, the Booker's 2010 winner, as a favorite this year, nor does our reviewer, Alan Cheuse.
ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Lately, we seem to be awash in dystopias - those novels that offer us troubling visions of an unpleasant, if not downright nasty, future. Howard Jacobson's new book is one of these. He calls it "J," and the book stands out not so much because of its imaginative brilliance as for its hushed, slightly paranoid tone.
Jacobson has set the story in a remote seaside village called Port Reuben. It's set after a Holocaust-like event that everyone refers to as what happened, if it happened. In the aftermath of this event, incivility has become the norm, and there's a hold on serious thought.
All of the inhabitants of Port Reuben also have Jewish last names, beginning with Kevern Cohen and his new girlfriend, a beautiful woman with the last name of Solomons. Well, somebody sees Cohen kissing a woman named Lowenna Morgenstern, who later ends up dead. Soon, Cohen's the suspect in a double murder, and he's being hounded by a detective named Gutkind.
There's general comedy in the populating the novel with all of these presumptive Jewish characters, reminiscent of "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon. But there's not much good cheer in the fact that someone murders the detective or in the tense relationship between Cohen and his girlfriend. The fate of that romance and the bubbling cauldron of the unsolved murders makes the second half of the book more compelling than the first.
Still, though it's made up of some lovely sentences and punctuated with comedy, the novel, overall, lacks a certain drive. Where is all of this going, and why? At one point, on a visit to the capital, known in the novel as Necropolis, Jacobson writes that we see the city as through a sheet of scratched Perspex. That's plastic sheeting. The entire novel read that way for me - marred where it should have been clear.
SIEGEL: The book, by Howard Jacobson, is called "J." It's released in the U.S. this week. Alan Cheuse had our review.
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