Rs. 399 pp 376
When I'd interviewed Howard Jacobson for this paper after he won the 2010 Man Booker Prize with The Finkler Question - a novel about bereavement, thwarted hopes, Jewishness, and male rivalry - he had told me that his next novel would be about the death of the word, about the writer, and the death of his world. At the time (this was October 2010), he said that he had written 65,000 words; that he found what he had done "very, very funny"; and that he would keep it aside for a while because it seemed hard to "get into the mood" to write a comic novel about failure "after having been crowned with success".
And here it comes, a scurrilous, ambitious, darkly comic, self referential delight of a novel. Its protagonist is the novelist Guy Ableman, well known at the beginning of his career, thanks to novels inspired by the visceral vigour of Henry Miller, but now struggling and embittered in today's cultural environment. "Now, one has to apologise for having read a book, let alone for having written one. Food and fashion have left fiction far behind." Ableman does not write the sort of stuff that is in demand. "None [of his books] featured a vampire. None was about the Tudors. None could be marketed as a follow up to The Girl Who Ate Her Own Placenta."
How Ableman confronts and finally triumphs in these grim times is the story of Zoo Time. The ending is unexpected and deliciously wicked - a joke to trump all the jokes that have come before in the novel and a devastating play on the notions of success and failure.
Jacobson has been called the British Philip Roth. In reply, he has sardonically said that he is the Jewish Jane Austen. In terms of its humour, Zoo Time is closer to the spirit of Dickens. Filled with comic hyperbole, it is a novel about the state of the novel, about what writing means, who it is for, and what it can (and can't) accomplish.
This is a novel readers who happen to be writers will enjoy in a particular way. But then, if we are heading towards a situation in which all readers are writers, in which no one is merely a reader ("Like the rest of the world, Vanessa wanted to be a published writer. She was the promise of the future: no readers, all writers"), perhaps everyone ought to love this. I rank it among Jacobson's finest.