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September 7, 2012 7:41 pm
Zoo Time, by Howard Jacobson, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 384 pages
I know when a writer’s in trouble,” Guy Ableman, the novelist narrator of Zoo Time, tells his agent, “when he resorts to writing about writing.” Howard Jacobson has proved him wrong by writing a novel about writing novels that is funny, clever and engaging.
Guy shares his home with two red-headed women, his wife Vanessa and her mother Poppy. He is uxorious but erotically entranced by Poppy, “as tall as a pergola, as slender as a down-pipe, yet high-breasted, as vivacious as an apple orchard in a tornado”. His first novel – a copy of which we catch him stealing from the ignominy of display in a charity shop – was dedicated to the two of them, and his domestic triangle is the well-spring of his literary inspiration. So while trying to seduce Poppy – or, more often, agonising about it – Guy is also trying to write a novel about a man who wants to seduce his mother-in-law. Vanessa, meanwhile, is trying to write her own novel about three people called Guy, Poppy and Vanessa, and may or may not be sleeping with all sorts of people, including her brother-in-law.
It is important to call this a plot and not a story, because Guy despises writers who tell stories (“People confuse plot and story. They think there’s no story if there is no machination. Fucking code-breaking, for Christ’s sake”), and he would want a reviewer to be scrupulous about language. This plot unfolds against the backdrop of Guy’s bleak despair about what he believes is the death of literature. His publisher, Merton Flak, shoots himself in his office after the two of them have shared a drunken lunch at which they bemoaned the loss of a literate public. “Novels are history,” Merton declares, “not because no one can write them but because no one can read them.” Guy goes into cosmic mourning – for Merton’s death but also for the loss of the world he represented.
There is much fun to be had at the expense of the new publishing environment in which Guy finds himself, and Jacobson (or perhaps that should be Jacobson/Ableman, since there is lots of clever stuff about the interplay between real people and their fictional creations) makes hay with the exuberance we have come to expect from him.
Guy finds that his own books have been replaced on his agent’s shelves by “a new TV tie-in cookery book by Dahlia Blade, a bulimic Kabbalist from an all-vegan girl band, and Blinder, the memoirs of Billy Funhouser, a teenager from Atlanta who’d lost his sight when his adoptive mother’s breasts exploded in his face”. Guy is advised to write a book about a Swedish detective – or something that could be enjoyed on the beach.
Merton’s replacement, the skeletal Sandy Ferber, tells his authors he wants them to “rescue reading from the word” by writing story apps that can be enjoyed by mobile phone users while waiting for the traffic lights to change. Meanwhile, Guy’s terrifying paperback publisher, Flora McBeth, puts his backlist out of print, and tries to persuade him this is good news because it will make him a player in the “print-on-demand” market. “Darling, I’m going to tell you what I tell all my non-celebrity authors,” she says, “you have to stop thinking in terms of in print. In print is so yesterday.” I do not know the literary world well enough to recognise these glorious grotesques personally but they suggest an element of the roman à clef in Jacobson’s mix.
But it seems perverse for someone who won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 – with the deeply-felt and sophisticated literary novel The Finkler Question – to write a lament for the death of literature. When Finkler won, Jacobson’s publishers promptly printed another 150,000 hardback copies, and its success makes it difficult to take seriously Guy’s protestation that “no one had readers” any more.
I feel confident about challenging the book’s premise like this because Guy is a contrarian who likes being provocative and would enjoy arguing back. On the other hand, Jacobson has packed the book with warnings about what happens to hostile reviewers. Vanessa physically flattens one who has “spoken ill” of her husband’s prose style. Even favourable comment can be trouble. Guy’s favourite Amazon review says, “Cross Mrs Gaskell with Apuleius and you come up with Guy Ableman” but he finds that “every time a new and more extravagant review appeared” on the website, “my publishers reported a drop in sales”.
So here are a couple of simple reasons why you should read the book. First, it is, with apologies to Guy Ableman, a cracking story, and wondering whether the guy will get the girl (ie his mother-in-law) keeps you at it. Second, there is a twist; our hero turns out to be really quite a nice fellow after all. And I even read some of it on a beach.
Edward Stourton is presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ programme
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