ZOO TIME, by Howard Jacobson. Bloomsbury, 376pp, $36.99.

Zoo Time, Howard Jacobson’s follow-up to his Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question, is Rabelaisian, rollicking, rambunctious – and, finally, wearisome in its comic tirades against pretty much everything that affects the life of its protagonist, novelist Guy Ableman. Guy’s name immediately signals a type rather than a character (he’s a guy, a man, though not a particularly able man). He strikes the reader as a sort of Jacobson-proxy – a novelist living in London, writing a novel about a novelist living in London …  The metafictional asides are plentiful, if not exactly subtle, and tend to anticipate the reader’s objections. (Sample: “You know you’re in deep shit as a writer when the heroes of your novels are novelists worrying that the heroes of their novels are novelists who know they’re in deep shit.” Indeed.)

Guy is very much in love with his wife, Vanessa, but also erotically obsessed with his mother-in-law, Poppy, both of whom conspire to make him frustrated and miserable. At least, Guy thinks they do: as his erotic obsession is surpassed only by his self-obsession, it doesn’t occur to him that they may have other, more important things on their minds than this. To be fair, it doesn’t really occur to the reader, either – Vanessa and Poppy are flat, one-motive characters, which makes their transformations late in the novel unconvincing. But then, a lot of the ordinary machinations of fiction are unconvincing here – Guy evinces a disdain for plot, for instance, and yet his story is packed with improbable twists and turns, incidents and coincidence, and it flits erratically from one location to another. Maybe Jacobson is revealing plot for the contrivance it is; maybe he just doesn’t value it any more than Guy does; maybe… About now I stopped caring; maybe Jacobson anticipates that, too. Guy waxes lugubriously about the loss of readers, the age of the Kindle and the end of the book, while the reader checks how many pages there are to go before this particular book ends. Jacobson is a clever, eloquent writer, a satyr and a satirist, but he’s also a bit like the loquacious pub bore who has you by the arm and won’t let go.

Jacobson’s novel may lack substance, but it has a forceful, vivid style, and Guy’s libidinous musings will delight fans of Kingsley Amis, Joseph Heller, and the early Philip Roth – all apologists for the unreconstructed, unrepentant, priapic male, baffled by and hopelessly drawn to beautiful women. It’s the sort of male infatuation with women, or the idea of women, that is compatible with contempt. In other words, this is the kind of novel you’ll find funny if you accept that misogyny is funny – and it isn’t, ever, is it?



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Tim Tweets