I don’t think you judge a book by its cover. I think it takes two covers and sometimes the inside jacket describing the author. So it is with Booker Prize winning author Howard Jacobson’s novel “Zoo Time.” The Note on the Author reveals that Mr. Jacobson is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who was educated at Stand Grammar School and who studied under F.R. Leavis at Downing College, Cambridge. I first thought this might be a joke that you would find in the credits of a Monty Python flick. I then considered how many stones Mr. Leavis might have been that it hurt Mr. Jacobson while studying under him. I thought this might be a work of dramatic art. Mr. Jacobson might be a character actor. Then again it might be a warning about what I was in for. Mr. Jacobson honestly admits that Mr. Leavis would not approve of his writing.
I wondered why list your defunct Grammar School. Is it a British thing? It was of secondary status- Mr. Jacobson being there only living “celebrity”. It may have been on purpose. The novel takes place in Manchester, England, where Mr. Jabobson grew up. Although his writing has been considered misogynistic and matches Mamet in his volumetric use of F-ck, the back cover of the book gives praise all his works other than “Zoo Time.” This should have been a warning. The New York Times says he “summons Roth” (I am looking for the Complaint that goes with it). Slate says he is “uproariously funny”. The San Franscisco Chronicle says he masterfully, buries a joke only to knock you out with a punch line 10 pages later. “Zoo Time” may have been a bad outing. I could not get through Booker prize author A.S. Byatt’s sustainable Norse mythology update ” Ragnarok, The End of the Gods.” The idea at least showed imagination.
Reading “Zoo Time” I couldn’t help thinking that the Catskills should be revived. The title for this literary sophism should have been stolen from Henny Youngman, “Take my mother-in-law,… please”.
Mr. Jacobson is bullet-proof. The work is a satire about himself, writers, publishing, the end of at least the last two, and the fiction of writing to an illiterate public that does not know any better and could give a damn about books. Mr. Jacobson writes crap, based on his award-winning status, to prove that crap will be published, praised and may even be awarded. It pays the bills and then some. His character writer, unlike the character writer in Tsipi Keller’s “The Prophet of Tenth Street” (which I just reviewed), is cynical, and intentionally so. His character states that plot is pointless so that attention is paid to the prose. Neither exists in this book.
The plot is that Jewish writer, Guy Abelman (a/k/a Guido Cretino), writes misogynistic novels to public approbation, that mirrors his dysfunctional personal life where he, and at least in his mind, his wife, have affairs. His mother-in-law is the object of his carnal desire and attempts and the subject of his next book. It is all meant to be shocking, but shocking is no longer saleable to publishers, so in the end he finds success in writing about loss after having a coming to Lubovitch Rabbi Schneerson moment.
I was reminded of two incidences in my life while reading this. One was someone who was so successful at perpetrating fraud on an industy, that he named the company he used to execute it “Carousel”. Clearly, Mr. Jacobson is his equal.
The second was a high school classmate of mine, who in high school determined that everyone’s music was crap. The Beatles were crap, the Rolling Stones were crap and anyone else who played in instrument outside of his garage band. To his credit he actually did achieve some measure of success. He ended up playing for the band The Cars (crap in my book). He is listed as Elliot Easton, although his real name, is a more common and recognizable Jewish name. Elliot at least was a kid when he had such a limited view of his world.
Mr. Jacobson has the publishing capability to write novels that would elevate literature and the readers that be bemoans through poor satire. It is far easier to play the system. After all it is “Zoo Time.”
Don’t waste your time with this. The same theme is better explored in “The Prophet of Tenth Street.”