A terrible thing happened to British novelist Howard Jacobson as he laboured to make light of literary apocalypse while writing what became the novel Zoo Time.
Himself a veteran author with more than a dozen books behind him, but still hoping for the breakout novel that would really make his name, Jacobson wrote with cynical glee about what his semi-deranged novelist hero saw when he visited his agent: “Displayed face out on his shelves was a new TV tie-in cookery book by Dahlia Blake, a bulimic Kabbalist from an all-vegan girl band, and Blinder, the memoirs of Billy Funhouser, a teenager from Atlanta who’d lost his sight when his adoptive mother’s breasts exploded in his face.”
But then it happened to him. Boom! Jacobson defied the odds to win the 2010 Man Booker Prize for his 11th novel, The Finkler Question, and all his cynicism exploded in his face.
Bowled over by unexpected good fortune, Jacobson struggled to sustain the supercharged cynicism about literary life that was fuelling Zoo Time, his suddenly all-important follow-up.
“My joke was I would never be able to finish that novel,” the author said in an interview from Boston, where he stopped briefly on the publicity tour that will bring him to Toronto’s International Festival of Authors for two appearances this week. “What if Zoo Time was going to be the funniest book I’ve ever written? And what if it was spoilt by Man Booker Prize?”
Jacobson imagined the headline: “Man Booker Prize Ruins Novelist’s Best Book.”
But as the Finkler hoopla died down, with Jacobson being celebrated as the world’s funniest writer by fashionable practitioners half his age, acrid inspiration returned. Winning the Booker “liberated” him from the trap of identifying with his bitter, fast-failing novelist hero, according to Jacobson. “To the degree the novel was about me and how I was feeling when I started, it was no longer about me when I finished – precisely because of that prize,” he said.
By elevating him far above the lowly position of his seething hero, Jacobson added, the prize “gave me the freedom to be truly comic about it.”
Venting someone else’s spleen, Jacobson rails against every manner of postliterate literary mediocrity, from the “militant women’s book groups in Chipping Norton” who bedevil his hero to Harry Potter readers and a New-Age bookseller who “rationalized fiction so there wasn’t any, boasting that he read at least one sentence of every novel published, deciding on its viability-or-not by opening it at page 100 and if there was too much happening in the way of words he wouldn’t buy.”
Ranting about end times is much more fun than “being mildly discontented about the state of things,” according to Jacobson. “I am a kind of comic apocalyptic writer,” he said. “There’s fun in that for me.” Everyone from the Old Testament prophets to modern science-fiction writers, he pointed out, have fed on the excitement of apocalypse.
“You can feel great joy in it,” Jacobson said. “But you don’t often get it written comically. This is where I thought I was going somewhere new.”
In puncturing the pseudo-religious pieties of literary life, Jacobson dares to offend whoever dares to read his book. “There’s a tradition of rudery in the novel that I do think we moderns, for all our emancipation, do have trouble with,” he said, sharing his enthusiasm for outlaw writers like Henry Miller and Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
Jacobson admits to being a creature of the milieu he mocks, “a quivering choirboy of literature” behind the outlaw disguise. “And yet,” he said, “three-quarters of all the things I hate emanate from it.”
Thus the urgent necessity of writing comedy. “You’re liberating readers from dogma, you’re liberating them from ideology, you’re liberating them from certainty,” Jacobson said. “You’re introducing your readers to the joys of utter skepticism and you’re showing them the pleasure of sarcasm and mistrust.”
And serious literature, he added, can have no higher aim.