Book Review of J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson

Posted on August 5, 2014


I enjoyed this literary, speculative fiction novel–primarily for the courtship between Ailinn Solomons and Kevern Cohen. The humorous narrative bounces between the two characters, presenting insight into the potential complexity of relationships. Ailinn and Kevern’s reactions are wonderfully human, twisted, confused, and painfully tortured by mutual need which evolves into love.

But can love survive the story which frames J: A Novel? That is the darker issue. Open to interpretation, of course, but I see the story as a statement on the Holocaust. Over the years, opinions have circulated that crimes of the past should be forgotten. Would things be better if people pretended atrocities never occurred? How can hatred of one generation not be passed down to the next? In the novel, governing powers were able to put their citizens on equal ground. In a kinder and gentler Big Brother endeavor, citizens were renamed to sever ties with ancestry, heirlooms were limited, or removed, homes relocated–as if peace could be accomplished that way.

The novel explores the after effects of such a world, and finds the strategy flawed. Tribalism cannot be eliminated because people need other people to compare themselves to, and to hate. Indeed, history has shown us how politician will create an enemy as scapegoats, or to unite and manipulate the masses, etc. The novel seems to imply that a situation where people were made to be the same, even if it were done with good intentions, would not last. This struck me as a sort of a counter argument to the philosophy behind the song, “Imagine”, by John Lennon.

I wish the story would have expanded on the history of the victim race of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. The problem, as I see it, is that the victims of what I assume was a genocide, were too one-dimensional. Flashbacks of a grandfather, for example, showed him to be fatalistic and paranoid–his people had been the objects of hatred before. What I want to know was who did the grandfather’s race hate? Not just their oppressors, of course–that’s too easy, and after the fact. In the time before the victims were first assaulted, since every race needs a race to which they feel superior, who did the victim race oppress?

Historically, no race or society is innocent or harmless. If given an opportunity, the oppressed will become the oppressor; the underdog will become a bully. Tribes give one another cause for retribution. Collective memories are vengeful and long. Hatred is passed through generations.

Underneath all our differences, humans are human–the good and the bad reside in every culture. So, the story felt a little one-sided and incomplete. I can’t buy the argument that people go against one another simply due to some underlying need. People fight, then history is filled with anger and resentment, deserved or not, because no one likes to admit shortcomings or failings or the inhumane way humans operate.

Or maybe I’ve misinterpreted the whole thing. With literary novels, you never know. Could make for good discussions though, yes? J: A Novel takes effort to work through, and I’m certain interpretations will vary widely–which is why reading literary novels are so enjoyable.

** I was given a copy of this novel through NetGalley. **

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