Howard Jacobson creates a dystopian, near-future society in his latest novel, J. Instead of focusing on the destruction of the environment or on technological advancements, he zooms in on the dark side of humanity. In fact, Howard’s description of this world remains intentionally vague, so the reader can focus on the main theme of collective guilt.
The author molds his protagonist Kevern Cohen as a sympathetic man plagued with paranoia (manifested through OCD tendencies). We like this quirky recluse who claims “that his dissatisfactions were no bigger than most men’s—loneliness and sense lost direction (or was it a sense of never having had direction?)—of early-onset middle age.” Even though he tries to remain unnoticed, we sense that Kevern is different and somehow linked to the nebulous events that unfolded in the late 2010s: WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.
We cheer him on when a mysterious stranger unites him with Ailinn Solomons, “a fine-looking girl, delicately strung, easy to hurt despite the dangerous thicket of hair.” We watch their delicate, intense relationship blossom. Jacobson’s keen observations about the interactions of men and women during the early days of coupling lures us deeper into the characters’ lives. After all, “when the love thing is upon you there’s no one who can break you up.” Is there truly no one or nothing that can tear them apart?
The secret that link the characters to WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED always looms at the back of our minds. There is a larger force at work in this story. Readers may become annoyed with the continuous circular motion that keeps bringing us back to this obscure incident, a seemingly modern-day Holocaust. Several matters are implied in J but never spelled out. Still, scenes unfold in an unsurprising way. After such an introspective, character-driven first part, the second half of the book was anticlimactic and unsatisfying. While Jacobson makes us ponder how we repeat our past, wicked actions even though we try to suppress them, the story feels stiff. It lacks heart, in the end.
*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*