Three-for-two kills off words of worth

Howard Jacobson's new novel is a brilliant, comic mix of desire and despair

By Kate Saunders, August 31, 2012

Zoo Time/ By Howard Jacobson/ Bloomsbury, £18.99

Guy Ableman is a moderately successful novelist. Before he started to write novels, he was working in his mother’s designer boutique in Wilmslow, and it was here that he fell under the spell of Poppy and Vanessa, a beautiful mother and daughter who could pass as sisters. He married Vanessa but is increasingly obsessed with his mother-in-law, and the sexual tension is playing merry hell with his writing.

This painful threesome is the driving force of Zoo Time. Since it is by Howard Jacobson, however, it is also about something else: the shocking state of the book trade and the melancholy, long withdrawing roar of literacy. Nobody reads novels any more, though everybody wants to write one. Guy’s publisher has committed suicide, his agent avoids him. “The book as a prestigious object and source of wisdom… is dying.” Names of well-known publishers and authors and their watering-holes have been changed, but you can’t call Zoo Time a satire; there’s no margin for satire when the truth is so depressing. “We were all being written out of history. Was three-for-two to blame?”

Vanessa, meanwhile, is angry with Guy because she’s trying to write a novel of her own, and feels that he is responsible for her failure to produce more than a couple of sentences — his fluency is sapping hers. But his fluency isn’t leading to good literature. He’s floundering for a subject and simmering with fantasies about the flame-haired, hard-drinking, non-reading Poppy. Can he combine the two? “As for the ethical question of whether it was right for a man to feel up his wife’s mother, that was dissolved in the prospect of there being a book in it.”

Jacobson is blisteringly funny about publishers and writers, and he has a lot of fun with the standard criticisms of Guy’s work that crop up on the literary festival circuit. Apparently, some of his readers feel he’s lacking in the scene-painting department. “Winter flowers of some description grew in a wooden trough. Enough with the nature writing.” Jacobson’s brand of angry human comedy doesn’t need that kind of decoration; if you want to know what was in that trough, read Wordsworth.

“Why do you hate women so much?” is a question Guy Ableman often hears from his readers, and it’s bitter when the truth is that he adores women, even a pair of selfish, manipulative harridans like Vanessa and her mother. But his dream of a grand illicit passion that produces great fiction is constantly thwarted by events in untidy real life — such as his smarmy younger brother dramatically remembering he’s Jewish.

Jacobson’s comedy comes in several flavours, all strong and mostly sour. Behind the sad satire about publishing there’s a plaintive love-letter to the power and beauty of literature and the miracle of creativity. Zoo Time is wonderfully witty, ferociously clever and assured to the point of swaggering — he’s clever enough to tease his readers without taking his eyes off the road.

Kate Saunders is a writer and critic

Last updated: 3:29pm, August 31 2012