Howard Jacobson’s new novel, “J,” takes place in the not too distant future, although the when is not clearly stated, in the small village of Port Ruben in, assumedly, Great Britain. Before “J” I had not read any of Jacobson’s work, although I knew his name from 2010 when he won the Man-Booker Prize for “The Finkler Question.” At 72, “J” put him back on the short list for the prize although the award went to Richard Flanagan. “J” is a complex story most easily compared to Orwell’s “1984” or Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Dystopian stories have been all over the bestseller lists for the past few years, but “J” is no “Divergent” or “Hunger Games.”
“J’s” story centers around a catastrophic event that decimated the population. This event is referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, and the book is coy about avoiding the direct cause of this destruction. Some past event shrouded in suspicion, denial, and regret. Characters in the book are purposely vague about everything in line with the book’s themes of a brainwashed population. “The past exists in order that we forget it,” says an official at Ofnow, which monitors the public mood. “The overexamined life is not worth living.”
Citizens wear black and the predominant emotional color appears to be gray, as the result of a program called Operation Ishmael. Under Operation Ishmael, to further dissipate any lingering sense of tribal allegiance and subsequent conflict, everyone has taken a new name. Citizens are continuously urged to apologize, but never to accept blame for anything making most adults childish and insolent.
It is unclear who the main character is as there are two equally important protagonists: Ailinn Solomons, a beautiful 25-year-old who fashions paper flowers and her lover, 40-year-old Kevern “Coco” Cohen, a woodturner who specializes in producing lovespoons. “J” is certainly a love story at its core, but it is a strange one, both caring and startling. Kevern suffers from a tic inherited from his father. He grew up never knowing why his father always drew two fingers across his lips when he said a word starting with a J, but is compelled to do it nonetheless. Ailinn grew up in the dark about who she was or where she came from. On their first date Kevern kisses the bruises under her eyes. He doesn’t ask who hurt her.
As these two misfits learn to accommodate each other in this dark world, their story is slowly poisoned by a patchwork of grim historical flashbacks, secret conversations and official government documents. They did not fall in love on accident; they are at the center of a epic government scheme.
There is an anti-semetic element to much of Jacobson’s work and it is clear throughout “J.” Whatever catastrophe has befallen this future is clearly close to another catastrophe. While Judaism and Jewish people are never mentioned it is clear that that is purposeful and intended to remind us that genocide does not happen in a day.
As with so many dystopian stories on the shelves “J” is full of depressing government conspiracies and the harsh absence of things we hold dear: memories, language, art, and music. “J” is definitely a different kind of dystopian novel, and will have you reaching for more of Jacobson’s works.
I received a free copy of this book through the “Blogging For Books” program.
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