By Howard Jacobson
352 pages, $25
By Stephanie Shapiro
In Howard Jacobson’s bleak new post-apocalyptic world, a letter of the alphabet – J – has been outlawed. If speaking, a person puts two fingers across his mouth while saying a word starting with J. In the book “J”, right-hand pages bear a monogram J with two little lines through it.
“You can’t make it up,” people sometimes say about startling coincidences, but with J, you don’t have to make it up. A letter of the alphabet – Z – already was outlawed in real life in 1967 by a junta of Greek generals as they overthrew the government. When pronounced aloud, the letter translates as “He is still with us” or “He is still here,” referring to a martyred activist murdered by fascists. It became convenient graffiti of resistance.
The generals also outlawed Mark Twain and the music of Mikis Theodorakis, keeping him under house arrest. And so on. The regime was cold-bloodedly brutal. Theodorakis later taught them a lesson when he composed the music for the movie “Z,” when the film and its music became huge hits and moneymakers for opponents of the coup.
Lady Banting, the widow of the discoverer of insulin, described being taken to an interrogation room and shown a drawer full of teeth or maybe fingernails. The anecdote was so upsetting it has blurred the details over the years. Either way, she was led to believe that they had been extracted during interrogation, without anesthetic. Her questioners suggested that if she wanted to keep her own, she might cooperate with her captors.
What does this have to do with “J”? I suppose to show that however far-fetched an artist’s idea may be, chances are it already has appeared in reality somewhere. And yes, “J” is far-fetched. It also is terrifying, but never in the overt ways enjoyed by the Greek generals or by the fictional rulers in George Orwell’s “1984.” Menace lurks in the mist and in the past. It never comes out into the open. Nothing is ever clear.
The story takes place in Port Reuben, a misty, drab gray seaside village, on a cliff that “fell away sharply, sliced like cake.” Books are hard to come by, diaries are hidden or destroyed, and libraries put “gentle” obstacles in the way of research. Everyone’s name has been changed at least once. “Utility consoles” provide soothing music and calming news. Even keeping too many possessions is frowned on as keeping the past alive.
Time after time, characters seeking information are led from blind alley to blind alley, as documents are “lost” or nonexistent. Memory is the enemy. A great catastrophe has occurred, perhaps a second Holocaust. Jacobson never tells, and his characters are not permitted to refer to it. “The past exists in order that we forget it,” an official informs a new resident to Port Reuben.
“What Happened, If It Happened” is the only permitted way of referring to the unmentionable catastrophe, and only when necessary.
Kevern “Coco” Cohen, the protagonist, lives among characters named Esme Nussbaum, Luther Rabinowitz, Densdell Kroplik and Morvoren Steinberg, as if the village were some kind of byproduct of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Yet, no reference ever is made to ethnic background of anyone. For all we know, these names are different from those given by their parents or by whoever named them. None begin with J. Characters may once have been Jews, but being a Jew or Protestant or any category of religion or nationality doesn’t apply in Port Reuben. Even knowing one’s parents doesn’t seem the norm.
It also would not be fair or accurate to think of the setting and plot as a maze or labyrinth: that would be too specific in the meandering, imprecise future Jacobson constructs. Or partly constructs. Nothing is ever complete in “J.” Hints are dropped, echoes are suggested but always without follow-up. Even the characters are incomplete. Not only do they lack even family histories, their present lives don’t withstand scrutiny. There are some jobs - barber, woodworker, tavernkeeper - but sparse organized activity.
We never know “What Happened, If It Happened,” but we know it was horrific and painful to think about. Reading this novel is no walk in the park, either. It requires constant effort to fill in the blanks in the narrative and characterization and even to figure out where information is left out.
Despite all its difficulties, “J” is worth the effort to work through, but probably not in a cover-to-cover mode. The strangeness eventually becomes fairly familiar. We don’t know until the end whether Kevern “Coco” Cohen and the beautiful Ailinn Solomons ever find or are able to create meaning in their lives, let alone happiness, so that quest keeps the pages turning.
It might have been easier to just set “J” aside and not attempt to describe Jacobson’s achievement. The temptation was strong. But when our own nation battles over whether a Confederate flag should be destroyed or at least removed from public view and even from museums, Jacobson’s masterful imagining of people and a land without a past provides food for thought, and plenty of it.
“What Happened, If It Happened” is never revealed in the book. So far, we, unlike the hapless residents of Port Reuben, still are entitled to examine the past, to make sense of our history.
“J” is not mind candy. It’s tough going but well worth the effort.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.