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Friday, October 12, 2012

"Zoo Time" by Howard Jacobson (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: The only novel that I have previously read from Howard Jacobson was his 2010 Booker winning The Finkler Question, which I found quite funny and entertaining for its first half or so, but then its descent into political stuff and the author's barely veiled personal opinions on such that were inserted there, turned me off in the last part.

So Zoo Time was not that high on my priority list, but a few weeks ago when in a mood to read something funny I requested a review copy on a whim from Net Galley, and I was surprised at how I could not put the book down when I started reading it. 

As with The Teleportation Accident before, a warning: do not read Zoo Time while drinking water or eating as you may choke from laughing!

"Novelist Guy Ableman is in thrall to his vivacious wife Vanessa, a strikingly beautiful red-head, contrary, highly strung and blazingly angry. The trouble is, he is no less in thrall to her alluring mother, Poppy. More like sisters than mother and daughter, they come as a pair, a blistering presence that destroys Guy's peace of mind, suggesting the wildest stories but making it impossible for him to concentrate long enough to write any of them. Not that anyone reads Guy, anyway. 

Not that anyone is reading anything. Reading, Guy fears, is finished. His publisher, fearing the same, has committed suicide. His agent, like all agents, is in hiding. Vanessa, in the meantime, is writing a novel of her own. Guy doesn't expect her to finish it, or even start it, but he dreads the consequences if she does. 

In flight from personal disappointment and universal despair, Guy wonders if it's time to take his love for Poppy to another level. Fiction might be dead, but desire isn't. And out of that desire he imagines squeezing one more great book. By turns angry, elegiac and rude, Zoo Time is a novel about love - love of women, love of literature, love of laughter. It shows our funniest writer at his brilliant best."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Zoo Time is an utterly funny novel for about two thirds, while its last part becomes moving drama with terminal illnesses and tragedy and offers a good emotional counterbalance to the more farce-like earlier content. The author lets it rip and pulls no punches in the words of alter-ego, (former bestselling), "literary" writer Guy Ableman whose first person narrative we follow throughout the book.

Making his splash with "Who Gives a Monkey’s" a funny novel about zookeepers and some of their alleged weirder practices about whom he had learned from a former girlfriend, Guy, former salesman in his family high end clothes shop, got the girl (Vanessa), the fame and the literary career he had always wanted, only for things to start unraveling with the present day "revolution" in publishing and the changing tastes of the readers towards genre...
While the following may strike some as overwritten hyperbola, anybody who follows more closely the "reading universe" - the whole reviews, forums, Goodreads, blogs etc scene - will actually find this paragraph very familiar:

"‘I’m gratified you found her death moving,’ I said.

She was quivering with that rage you encounter only among readers. Was it because reading as a civilized activity was over that the last people doing it were reduced to such fury with every page they turned? Was this the final paroxysm before expiry?

‘Moved?’ I feared she might strike me with my berk. ‘Who said I was moved? I was envious. I identified with her because I’d been wishing I was dead from the first word.""
Not that the writing profession, the editors or the publishers get a gentler treatment:

""Even allowing for my naivety, that’s a measure of how things have changed in twenty years. Then, no matter with what foundation in truth, it was possible to believe that being a writer was a glamorous occupation, that two beautiful women might travel up again from Knutsford sometime soon to renew their acquaintance with a man in whose head words cavorted like the Ballets Russes.

Now, one has to apologize for having read a book, let alone for having written one. Food and fashion have left fiction far behind.

‘I sell suits by Marc Jacobs in Wilmslow,’ I’d say today if I wanted to impress a woman, ‘and when I’m not doing that I’m practising to be a short-order chef at Baslow Hall. This fiction shit is just a way of killing time.’"

And for good measure the current rage in YA gets its skewering - the chapter dealing with that is just hilarious but as I can quote only a few lines, its beginning below should give you a feel for how it goes:

"The subject of the Oxford symposium I’d bolted from was the role of children’s literature. In what? The education of children? There was no education of children. If there was education of children – if there were education of children – there’d be proof of it in educated adults. 

But then what did I know? I’d been invited only to be publicly humiliated – an adult sacrifice on the altar of the adolescent paragraph. The short, adolescent paragraph."

Overall, if you appreciate a good rant with a lot of uncomfortable truths about this or that aspect of the reading universe, you will greatly enjoy Zoo Time (highly recommended novel of 2012 for me), otherwise, the "now I won the Booker, I can let it rip and show what I really think" aspect may make one wish they did not read this book, so beware!



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