“I know when a writer’s in trouble,” novelist Guy Ableman, the neurotic and despairing voice of Howard Jacobson’s latest black comedy, tells his agent. “When he resorts to writing about writing.” Zoo Time is, of course, a novel about a writer writing a novel – in Guy’s case, a novel about his unrequited lust for his glamorous mother-in-law, Poppy, and suspicions about his disapproving wife, wannabe novelist Vanessa.
In Guy’s gloomy view, these are dark times for writers. He traded selling clothes in the family’s chic boutique for writing books, and finds himself deeply out of fashion. The novelist is now a pariah, castigated in online reviews by the “unread”; humiliated at literary festivals where soon “the average age of the audience would be a hundred” and “there’d be funeral parlours on site”; and denounced by book club members “quivering with that rage you only encounter among readers”. (“Was it,” Guy wonders, “because reading as a civilised activity is over that the last people doing it were reduced to such fury with every page they turned? Was this the final paroxysm before expiring?”)
He laments that these days “one has to apologise for having read a book, let alone for having written one”. His publisher commits suicide after confiding that novels “are history, not because no one can write them but because no one can read them”. His agent’s implicit advice, our beleaguered hero decides, is “to move on from doing what you used to do, from hoping what you used to hope, or from hoping anything”. As hopeless Guy staggers towards an enlightenment, of sorts, the novel tries to elude potential criticisms – too much North London novelist navel-gazing and not enough story, too many predictable midlife crises and a tinge of misogyny that relegates female characters to shopping and/or ball-busting – by confessing to every possible sin.
Guy is taking the talking cure for his multiple problems, it seems, and readers will either find this bumptious voice winning or whiny. Jacobson has his shtick and his literary satire won’t appeal to everyone, but what writer of comedy does? This novel may lack the heart and complexity of The Finkler Question, for which Jacobson, contrary to his own predictions, won the 2010 Man Booker Prize, but Finkler fans who wonder, like Guy, if “the fun [has] gone out of reading now, along with everything else” will find plenty to laugh at here.
ZOO TIME, by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury, $36.99).
Paula Morris’s novel Rangatira was the fiction winner at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.