J by Howard Jacobson

In the not too distant past, in the memory of their grandparents, WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, forced the creation of a new society built to suppress violence and enforce forgiveness. Under Project Ishmael, everyone was given new names making victim and perpetrator one in the general forgetting. Only it isn’t working. Aggression and brutality are on the rise but with no outside forces, no others for society to rally against, the violence is being enacted on those closest at hand: spouses, lovers, friends.

In the midst of this new unnerving world, are Kevern and Ailinn, two people brought together by their difference. Kevern lives in the small seaside town of Port Reuben but even though he was born there he is never considered a local. He is a lone woodcarver whose obsessive fastidiousness when it comes to protecting his home or pronouncing the letter J – when he places two fingers across his lips like his father before him – marks him as an outsider even before his lack of sexual aggression, his hoards of things from before WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED and his love of comedy come into play. He lives surrounded by more objects of the past than allowed, but knowing very little of that past. He feels unrooted. The beautiful young Ailinn, an orphan from a northern town, is equally untethered, but is their instant attraction orchestrated? Ailinn was brought to town by an older friend, Esme, who encouraged her interest in Kevern. Why?

The heavy unease of fear and suspicion encircle J, creating a world in which memory is central. Whether remembered through personal experience, archive or hearsay, memory holds the key to identity and power. Those in charge of dictating what memories matter are the enforcers of collective and individual identity. Their new society of forgetting doesn’t work, but what could take its place? Esme thinks she knows. She searches for the illusive victim, the other against which society can rally belief in itself, turning its talons outwards. Kevern and Ailinn are at the centre of her plans.

In some ways, the plot reads much like a blockbuster science fiction film, but J doesn’t return us to a point of safety, to the best version of our current society. This is not entertainment as much as provocation. The idea that human society requires others to channel what would otherwise be untrammelled violence is compelling and terrifying. We find ourselves thrown headlong into Nietzsche’s vision of the eternal recurrence. There is no escape from the story of the past and that ongoing comedy is mankind’s tragedy.

J is a complex and provocative novel whose central story is beautiful as well as challenging. This is the kind of book I hope to see on the Man Booker list. J is a novel that will undoubtedly become a classic. It’s not easy reading. I’m not always sure of the political, philosophical and psychological implications of Jacobson’s vision, but I am enervated by it. Looking into the pages of J becomes a disquieting mirror that provokes revelations of prejudice within ourselves.

Next week I’m reading The Cave by Jose Saramago.