Howard Jacobson's "Zoo Time" is a novel about dying and making jokes. The dying in "Zoo Time" is less that of the narrator, one Guy Ableman, than it is that of the serious reading public. By serious, Jacobson/Ableman simply means a public that cares about books and reading. Here's Guy's list for the causes of death: "Oxfam, Amazon, eBooks, iPads, Oprah, apps, Richard and Judy, Facebook, Formspring, Yelp, three-for-two, the graphic novel, Kindle, vampirism."
Once the public starts to go, the traditional publishing business starts to die. Fifteen pages in, Guy's despairing publisher commits suicide at his desk, gun to temple; Guy's agent absconds to the Hindu Kush so he can't be reached by cellphone. For Guy, like Jacobson, an independently wealthy, deracinated English Jew, a sometimes successful writer, but lately less so, words are all that matter and he can't get anyone to care. We seem to hear the ghost of Jacques Derrida whispering from behind the arras: "There is nothing outside the text."
Because Ableman's gripe is that his audience no longer cares about serious stuff, he produces stunts. In desperation he tries anything he can think of and then some: he imitates gestures of the Surfictionist manifesto, as well as the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, poets. By coincidence there's a strong UB English Department debt here to alumni professors Raymond Federman, Charles Bernstein and more distantly but more relevantly to John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse," published in 1968.
Guy defines what he's doing as "transgressive " writing on matters of gender and sex. The central plot, if we may call it that, concerns Guy's marriage to the beautiful red-headed Vanessa and his yen for her equally beautiful, equally red headed mother, Poppy. "Two burning bushes," he calls them. As transgressiveness goes, this is pretty tame stuff compared with say Humbert Humbert's passion for the prepubescent Lolita. Poppy is a good-looking woman but already in her 60s throughout the main action for some 300 pages. Finally, he turns it all into a joke to see if the disappearing serious reading public gets any of that. They don't.
Ableman frequently compares his task as a writer to that of a stand-up comic. To pursue the analogy a bit: when the comic's material isn't working, when the timing is off, when the audience is in a bad mood, because the venue is too hot or too cold, the drinks are too watery or too expensive and for at least a dozen other reasons, the comic is said to be dying on stage. Conversely a stand-up set that really works is said to kill. Jacobson's jokes often kill, but more often simply die. Straining too hard breaks the first rules of comedy, whether stand-up or sit-down inscribing words onto a page. If it's gonna work you gotta make it look easy. Don't let them see you sweat. If you do break a sweat, convince them it's because you're having so much fun. For evidence, see Donald O'Connor's magical "Make ‘em laugh" number from "Singin' in the Rain."
Undeniably, Jacobson has some very funny stuff in "Zoo Time", much of it front-loaded. The first three chapters, all short, have Guy in front of a women's book club where he's berated for being misogynistic, anti-children and sexist, and for various politically incorrect uses of the masculine singular "He." The book club would much prefer he/she and finds other politically incorrect offenses on matters grammatical, stylistic and substantive. Leaving the book club meeting he spots copies of his first novel on the remainder shelf of the Oxfam charity bookshop. He steals it with the thought of getting at least one copy off the remainder shelf and gets himself arrested. A funny dialogue with the cops ensues.
Guy's first novel, "Who Gives a Monkey's?" – "An elegantly profane novel, told from the point of view of a young and idealistic woman zookeeper – hence its lingering interest to women's reading groups, who found less not to identify with in it than in my later work." The zookeeper is Guy's former girlfriend, Mishnah Grunewald, a soulful orthodox rabbi's daughter, named for the rabbinic commentary in the Torah. In rebellion against all that Jewish high-minded soulfulness, the daughter makes her career caring for feral beasts, apes and tigers in the Chester zoo. Guy, besotted with Mishnah's purple eyes and the odor on her of the animals' "interminable rutting," learns that one of her jobs is to masturbate the tigers on occasion. He asks why and she tells him that it keeps things quiet. The tigers "go all dopey" upon completion of the task. Does she do the same for the chimps? Answer: No, it's too dangerous. The monkeys just want to keep going. This has the effect on Guy of making him more ape than tiger.
Jacobson deploys naughty words, particularly the F word and the C word, much like a precocious potty-mouthed 6-year-old aiming to shock his mother in the supermarket or embarrass his parents and the guests at a dinner-party. He does funny things with regional pronunciations. The F word appears incessantly, typically with vowels lengthened to imitate Lancashire dialect. The word's effect would be more to rhyme more with "soup" than with, say, "look." The F word also appears often as not, as it were, straight, to rhyme with "luck"
Along with the F words, "Zoo Time" is crammed full of nods to lit-theory fashions, with gestures toward completely self-referential texts, and contains a couple of examples of concrete or shape poetry. The final shape, a series of noughts, ooooooooo, artfully spread across the last page is actually quite clever in a nihilistic-satiric way. Since "Zoo Time" is the novel immediately following Jacobson's receipt of the Man Booker prize for "The Finkler Question" in 2010, it's more than odd that this novel's main preoccupation should be with the lack of recognition a writer deserves.
When all the "word qua word" stuff is pared away, what's left is the same vein of humor that George Orwell admired so fondly 70 years ago: the smutty postcard that in those days went along with the dusty seaside shops serving weak tea and selling those funny, modestly vulgar little missives, honestly British. In "Zoo Time" the naughty language, pretentiously blown up to the enormous size of 376 pages, is less funny and more tiresome. The serious reader — and there are some – might well ask at this late date, "Who gives a monkey's?" with the F word implied. In other words, "Who cares?"
Stefan Fleischer taught in the English Department at the University at Buffalo for 39 years. He lives in Houston, Texas.
By Howard Jacobson
376 pages. $26