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WRITER’S BLOCK
- Questioning received wisdom

Zoo Time By Howard Jacobson,
Bloomsbury, Rs 399

The problem with writing about Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time is that the book and its author have been extensively discussed and written about in the British and European media well before the book reached Indian shores. The reason for this attention is the author’s previous book, The Finkler Question, won the 2010 Man Booker prize, as well as the fact that Jacobson is a favourite with the alternative crowd because of his “relentless commitment to re-examining even the most seemingly unobjectionable of received wisdom”, as one enthusiastic reviewer pointed out. The other reason is that Jacobson is adroit with his language, particularly in the way he gets his characters to speak. Columnists have gushed about his writing and have not hesitated in likening him to the Waughs, father and son, the Amises, father and son, Philip Roth and others like them. In judging him, we might as well be talking about J.P. Donleavy, too.

As the book follows the highs, lows and flats of Guy Ableman’s current condition, I am reminded of how Donleavy’s The Ginger Man tickled our minds. But Sebastian Dangerfield is an American Protestant of Irish descent whereas Ableman is a Brit and a Jew and, beyond a point, their dispositions are distinct and they continue their respective stories, being rebellious and ribald in their own ways.

Moreover, in Zoo Time, one gets the feeling that whilst Jacobson is interested in documenting the dysfunctional Guy Ableman, lurching through his days and nights, he is actually using Ableman more to advocate his theory that books are dead, publishing, as we know it, deader and the reader the deadest. Also that authors are a frightened lot, except the ones who haven’t finished writing their debut novels as yet. Little wonder, then, that not only does Jacobson name Guy’s publishers Scylla & Charybdis, but has the firm’s owner retiring to his office, at the end of a long, essentially pointless client conversation with Guy, to shoot himself. The be-all and end-all of all this, explains Jacobson/Ableman, is that literary agents tend to lock themselves up in their lavatories to avoid meeting clients or authors who arrive with their manuscripts because they are terrified that the document will be handed over to them like a court subpeona; or they disappear, along with their clients’ manuscripts, in the wilds of the Hindu Kush. A good day for them is a day when no one gives them a manuscript that they would have to find a publisher for.

Guy’s first book, Monkey Business, has been successful although it has drawn a lot of flak from Ladies’ Book Clubs in the English hinterland for, what the ladies consider, a muddling of genders and tenses as well as a metaphoric stripping of the protagonist, Mishnah Grunewald, the female zoo-keeper who specializes in arranging sex for the primates under her command. He also has a wife, Vanessa, whom he loves but is uncertain about, and she loves him back in a dismissive sort of way. Although he sees no point in any fiction — or even non-fiction, for that matter — he feels that he must goad her into completing her own novel, which is a long time in the writing.

She, however, finds it impossible to think, leave alone write, with him in and around the house because, she says, “it’s the atmosphere of you all around me, it’s the idea of your presence… you take up all the creative space, you clog the magnetic field, you gluttonize the air waves”. She is peeved by the sound of his computer keys tapping out his new book, which is not moving forward, either, in a kind of sympathetic writer’s block. An iconic author once famously wrote that every character in your novel should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water. Guy, our man in the middle, wants things, too, though he has no interest in material advantages per se. Being both profound and profane in turn, he laments his brother’s brain tumour, the latter’s suddenly revealed Jewishness and his manifold sexual adventures, mainly concerning sister-in-law Vanessa and her mother Poppy. But Guy, being as insouciant as some writers, I suppose, are (why else would he listen to a junior policeman on the beat explain the compulsions of the Oxford comma to him?) rationalizes, “God knows what blind Homer supposed was going on in front of his nose, never mind behind his back, but we owe the Iliad to his ignorance and the Odyssey to his suspicions.” It is quite another matter that Guy himself spends a large part of the book trying to bed his delectable, only-one-of-her-kind mother-in-law, with interesting results.

Eventually, but not too much afterwards, things change, though talking about which will mean inserting spoilers. In any case, it does not have to be for the better or the worse, does it? Suffice to say that in the last quarter of his book, Jacobson abandons any pretence to a continuing storyline and brings in an avidly argued declaration of values, or the lack of it, leaving a prime question not just unanswered, but unaddressed, which is this — if Guy is so convinced about the decline and fall of everything literary, why does he keep on writing books and hoping for success? And why, indeed, does Howard Jacobson?

Zoo Time walks a rocky road from start to finish and heeds neither Jean-Luc Godard’s avowal that his films have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order, nor Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to start your novel as close to the end as possible. What it does, though, is to revisit a Rabelaisian world of words and images that is edging towards alienation. Come in.