Man Booker Prize

The Suppressed Rage, The Suppressed Everything, Of Howard Jacobsen’s ‘J’

129.Howard Jacobson-J coverJ is a novel of omission, a novel of everything unsaid brewing up like an earthquake from under the ground.

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.

J on’

Review – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

the luminaries gif

Reading The Luminaries is like being dropped in the midst of New Zealand’s Otago Gold Rush, blindfolded and totally without reference, and then being spun round in circles by a stranger and let loose to feel around the landscapes and stand near their inhabitants, prospectors and bankers and Chinese diggers and tattooed Māori streaming around you, the women left to pleasure and care for these teeming throngs of men nearly knocking you over as they rush this way and that, and just as you feel overwhelming lost amidst these endless characters, totally without equilibrium in this many-plotted story centered in a town where everyone wants to make it rich, Eleanor Catton comes and takes you by the shoulder and steadies you for just a moment, and you breathe in the smells of dirty men and sea water as ships wreck upon the beach and scavengers look upon the ships and you sigh and know that despite there being too much information here, maybe just too much life here, for one book to ever express, you must keep reading.

the luminaries full coverAnyone coming off of a Goldfinch buzz and wondering what their next ambitious, too-long book will be should look no further than The Luminaries. Both books are written with the crisp observations that make them so much more than plot recounted. These are stories of life, magnified. Stories of how life could be if we all drunk in details of each other’s quirks and charms, every insecurity and affect, every ugly part and every beautiful one, and then maximized them into sentence-formed still lives spilling over into paragraphs so illustrative of this human condition we’re stuck in they act like paintings on pages changing ordinary days into phenomenas, ordinary interactions into humorous, tragic, wonderful things worth documenting. This is how these books get to be close to 1,000 pages long–life magnified is a very big thing, indeed.

The Luminaries, as I’ve mentioned, is the story of New Zealand’s Otago Gold Rush, and the story of a plethora of characters drawn together by an unfortunate set of circumstances. Men in all sorts of businesses centered around profiting off of gold or the men who find it feel uneasily bamboozled, they all sense a caper of some sort, and yet trying to pin down who has down wrong when is like trying to sift the gold dust apart from the dirt. The plot is complicated, and meant to be, as that’s the fun and beauty of the thing. Also, this is a book that uses the word “whore” quite a bit. Prepare yourself for that.

Catton includes all sorts of bells and whistles, but she really didn’t need to, as her writing stands on its own. There are astrological signs and charts of each character’s place on the zodiac, and there are chapter lengths that get progressively shorter by half until it seems almost hard to keep up with all the pieces that are being put together. As I listened to The Luminaries on audiobook, I missed much of this but gained narrator Mark Meadows deftly juggling the varied accents required amidst the cultural mish-mash of gold rush New Zealand. I appreciate getting lost in layers of meaning as much as the next book nerd, however, and I’ll be picking up a hard copy of the book to read again for further understanding of the whole astrological subtext.

I was quite fed up with non-linear narrative as a plot device, especially as so many authors now seem to use it as a cheap trick to create a sense of suspense where otherwise there would be none. The Luminaries, while not traditionally non-linear, told its story with such elegant disregard for linear storytelling that it renewed my faith in non-linear narrative. I wasn’t even aware of the story as non-linear until the elegant end of the book, which brought things to a fully circular close. “Oh,” I thought. “I see.” Books with a satisfying ending, that have so many twists and motives and lies and running through them, are rare indeed.

Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries via

Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries via

This was one of those books, that if you tune into the book world of things, became mildly controversial. The longest book to win the Man Booker Prize, by the youngest ever author to win it, The Luminaries is an astounding (literally record-breaking, although we save that sort of term for sports) achievement. After winning the prize, Eleanor Catton said in an interview with The Guardian that old male reviewers don’t take young women authors seriously, and they reviewed the book negatively. From the article:

I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel,” she says. “In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are – about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.

I want to acknowledge Catton for voicing this issue, as a young woman of such mighty talent in the book biz. I’m sure this is something most women can relate to, as I have found myself sometimes saying to friends, “I wish people would want to know my mind, rather than see if I’m dateable.”

Some negative reviews by women asked why a young woman would write a book featuring only two women, one being a whore. This seems the saddest, most limiting sort of criticism–judging someone’s book content because of their sex seems to be an alarming double standard placed on a woman by a woman.

The Luminaries on 

Further Reading: