Howard Jacobsen has built a world in which something happened. Something bad. This is a dystopian state that chooses not to talk about its dystopia, a world moved on by moving away, and now this holocaust-like massacre of some future group is referred to as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.” Responsibility has been taken by all, or by no one, equally. Everyone apologizes for nothing specific. People’s names have been changed, attempting to wipe the slate clean and start over.
Social media, attributed with a role in WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, has been replaced with flashing utility phones equipped for making and receiving local calls. Gone is conceptualism in art, as the “benign visual arts” now focus on landscapes. Gone is so much expressing discontent, from rock music to Proust, all blamed in part for the atrocities. And yet, not gone is everyone’s anger, as spouses argue and drivers rage.
So much in J lives in what isn’t known, what is forbidden, the opposing viewpoints never even aired, people privately stewing over their secrets at night, the treasures stored in boxes. I’m typing the letter “J” here, but in the book it is always J with two lines through it, as main character Kevern’s father “puts two fingers across his mouth, like a tramp sucking on a cigarette butt he’d found in a rubbish bin. This he always did to stifle the letter j before it left his lips.” Throughout the book, j is typed as the title’s two-lined, stifled, silenced j.
Amidst this negative backdrop, with its history subtracted and its culture forgotten or denied or disallowed, two people fall in love.
Ailinn identifies with the title’s namesake whale in Moby Dick, always pursued. “But when people describe having the wind at their back it’s a sensation of freedom I don’t recognize. An unthreatening, invigorating space behind me?–no, I don’t ever have the luxury of that.” Raised in an orphanage, unfamiliar with her history but aware of Ahab at her heels just the same, she grows up to shape paper into flowers beautiful and strange, alien to the landscape.
Kevern, in a village full of men not hesitant to beat their wives or each other, is not the type to hit a woman. A few kisses here and there, yes, but he’s a man who drives his car rarely and slowly, who disarrays his slippers and teacup in the hallway just-so as a security system against intruders when he goes out. He is a cautious, kind man.
When Kevern sees Ailinn for the first time, a girl with “black hair–thick and seemingly warm enough to be the next of some fabulous and he liked to think dangerous creature,” he is smitten.
As the book progresses, as Kevern and Ailinn’s love story progresses, less is omitted and more is stated outright. Kevern and Ailinn are both outsiders, that much is clear. But what does it mean to be an outsider, after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED? Neither one of them know their own history, nor that of their country or its crimes. Gradually, a bit of their history is revealed. Never enough for a full picture. This isn’t that kind of book.
J starts slow, as Ailinn and Kevern’s love story builds and each of their characters develop, but the last half of the book makes a powerful and shocking statement about the other as necessary for identity. The intentional vagueness of the actual atrocities allow for sweeping, wise statements and tight, tragic glimpses that might lose power with a more fleshed out description of the crimes. The ending is astonishing, beautifully done, and makes the entire book more memorable.