We think of novelists as a cerebral lot. But in his latest comic outing, English Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson emphasizes their beastly side.
Zoo Time, released a few months ago in Britain, shows Jacobson working in a minor key, though in full control of his gifts.
Amusing as it might be, it is not as ambitious as its predecessor, The Finkler Question, a brilliantly deconstruction of the modern liberal Jewish mind, which earned him the Booker in 2010 after close to a dozen comic novels.
The win seems to have relaxed him. In Zoo Time, he tells a loose and lightweight tale of a Jewish novelist, Guy Ableman, who lusts after his 60-something mother-in-law while trying to recapture his once-promising place in a devolving literary universe.
"The age of sparing the writer's feelings was past," notes Guy, yet another of Jacobson's first-person narrators.
"Displayed face out on [his agent's shelves] was a new TV tie-in cookery book by ... a bulimic Kabbalist in a vegan all-girl band, and ... the memoirs of Billy Funhouser, a teenager in Atlanta who'd lost his sight when his adoptive mother's breasts exploded in his face."
The navel-gazing irreverence is the big meta-fictional joke. "You know you're in deep s as a writer," Guy observes, "when the heroes of your novels are novelists worrying that the heroes of their novels are novelists who know they're in deep s ."
Guy, who is about 40 (Jacobson is 70), knows he's doomed. His agent wants to drop him and his publisher has committed suicide, despondent that the Internet, blogs and Twitter have debased his venerable profession.
"Can you imagine asking Salinger to twit?" he had asked Guy.
"No bloody wonder."
The comedy comes in two varieties, literature-is-over jokes and the portrayal of men as escapees from Portnoy's Complaint. Guy admits he modelled the villain of his first novel, the colloquially titled "Who Gives a Monkey's," on himself, "a man ruled by pointless ambition and a blazing red penis."
The simian analogies and metaphors stack up. Zoos feature prominently, as does "animality, sensuality, cruelty, indifference." Guy travels to an arts festival in Australia with his bombshell wife and spectacular mother-in-law and ends up in a place called "Monkey Mia."
Zoo Time is not so coarse as Portnoy (author Philip Roth named a character "the Monkey" in his bawdy 1969 classic), nor as obsessed with its author's ethnicity. Guy confesses that his Jewishness "never entered into the scheme of things for me."
Jacobson is more interested in satirizing Guy's home town in small-town northern England. Wilmslow calls to mind Pagford, the parochial village in J.K. Rowling's adult novel, The Casual Vacancy.
Much of the regional satire will be lost on North Americans. They will read Zoo Time for the Wodehousian fluidity of Jacobson's sentences and his gallows humour aimed at the book world. Vanity publishing, the new hope of the digital world, Guy calls "the last refuge of those dreaming to show the world it had been wrong to reject them, though the world seldom was."
Jacobson even takes a good-natured poke at us here in the colonies. Guy objects to his wife flirting at a party with a writer whose novel about single fatherhood was "big in Canada" and had just won the "Prix Pierre Trudeau."
"I understood that novels about single fatherhood did well in Canada because Canadian women were so bored with their husbands that the majority of them ran off sooner or later with an American or an Inuit."
Relax. It could have been another monkey joke.
Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.