Wednesday, November 5, 2014

J: A Novel

Title:  J:  A Novel
Author:  Howard Jacobson
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2014. 324 pages.
ISBN:  0553419552 / 978-0553419559

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through Edelweiss free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Blogging for Books!

Favorite Quote:  "What divided Homo sapiens from brute creation was the need to apportion responsibility. If a lion went hungry or a chimpanzee could not find a mate, it was no one's fault. But from the dawn of time man had been blaming the climate, the terrain, fate, the gods, some other tribe or just some other person. To be a man, as distinct from being a chimpanzee was to be forever at the mercy of a supernatural entity, a force, a being or a collection of beings, whose only function was to make your life on earth unbearable. And wasn't this the secret of man's success:  that in chasing dissatisfaction down to its malignant cause he had hit upon the principle, first of religion and then of progress? What was evolution - what was revolution - but the logic of blame in action? What was the pursuit of justice but punishment of the blameworthy?"

I chose this book because it has gotten a lot of press as a short-list finalist for the 2014 Man Booker prize. The title of this book is not simply the letter "J." It is the "J" with lines through it. The letter and its usage refers to events of the past that should not be talked about in the world created in this book.

At the center of the book are Kevern Cohen, Ailinn Solomons, and their love story. They live in the small village of Port Reubens, in a dystopian Britain. The mantra of the world is "Let sleeping dogs lie, the over examined life is not worth living, yesterday is a lesson we can learn only by looking to tomorrow." It is a brutal world in which nothing is forbidden per say, but individuals are quietly diverted into acceptable code of behavior. People may harm each other, but then quickly apologize as if that remedies all.

A clear division exists in the before and the after in this book. In between is "What happened, if it happened" - a cryptic reference to a cataclysmic event that forever altered the society described in the book. The story takes place in the after, but the events of the "before" are central to understanding the story. Surrounding Kevern and Ailinn are characters who clearly have an agenda that is not clear to either one of them. This has to do with their backgrounds and their history in the "before." The connection does not become clear until well into the book such that at times, the different sections and characters seem somewhat disjointed. The references don't connect until you understand "what happened, if it happened." Reading the book straight through, that connection comes perhaps too late.

I started reading this book and got lost. I put it aside. I started over. I got lost. I put it aside. I started over. I got lost.

So, I decided to do some background research. This is the first work I have read by Howard Jacobson.   Howard Jacobson is a British author and journalist best known for his comic novels, which often deal with British Jewish characters. He previously won the Man Booker prize in 2010 for his book The Finkler Question. J: A Novel is his thirteenth novel. Having the background on the author helps to better understand the context of this book. The setting of the book is a dystopian Britain with a disturbing history.

I also did some background research on this book, something I normally don't ever do for a book I read. I don't write spoilers, and I certainly try and never read a spoiler. Except for this book. Getting some understanding of "What happened, if it happened" makes it so much easier to follow the story and understand the society and motivations. I won't write the spoiler in this review, but my recommendation - Read some background about the context of this book before reading the book.

With this background, I restarted the book. I was able to actually pick up on the references and appreciate the build up once I knew the context. I was able to get through the book because that background is the glue that binds the book together. For me, the book makes a lot more sense and becomes considerably easier to read having that understanding.

However, I still needed more help. Read this book with a dictionary on hand as well as the capability to look up topics. Some terms I looked up just to know what the word exactly meant; the roots of the words give an indication of what the word means, but I wanted a more precise understanding. Words such as psychoaesthetic, neuroticism, insalubriousness, bolshily, anagramatiser, and pissastrope.
Some terms I looked up because they appeared as names or language reference. Terms like Maidenek, Magdeburg, Necropolis, Babi Yar, shlemiel, and Nicht wahr. Having done background research, I knew it could have significance to the understanding of the book. Again, the more I looked up, the more I understood of the book, but I spent a lot of time looking things up.

Bottom line, this book was a lot of work. It took a lot to get through it. I am glad I did because getting through it became a challenge. I am also glad because periodically, through the book are profound statements of philosophy that will stay with me. However, was it really worth it? For me, probably not other than the challenge of it.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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