Tears from the Clown: Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time

DSCN1313 - Version 3Jacobson, Howard. Zoo Time. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Given the main character’s concerns about the fate of the novels he’s written and trying to write, I found it more than somewhat ironic that my copy of Zoo Time was purchased at a heavy discount, already marked down by more than half its original price of C$27.50. This 2012 novel by the Booker Prize winning author of The Finkler Question follows novelist Guy Abelman (note the significance of the name) as he faces the realities of contemporary writing, publishing, and reading, and begins with his being apprehended by the Chipping Norton constabulary for “stealing a book, [his own novel discounted in an Oxfam shop], leaving out a comma, and scheming to misappropriate . . . [his] wife’s mother” (8).

DSCN1313 - Version 3Not only is Guy desolated by the changing and shrinking—think how many publishers have disappeared, merged and rebranded—world of market-driven publishing in the age of the Internet, he is torn between his desire for both his wife and for her mother. Then, too, his wife wants to be a novelist and cannot work on her novel when he is working on his. Throw in parents with dementia and a younger brother who changes from being the uber cool manager of the family’s up-market dress store in Wilmslow to become a proponent of lubervitcher orthodoxy: well, Guy’s life is not exactly anxiety-free.

DSCN1313 - Version 3As you can see, Zoo Time is more than gently hyperbolic in its situations and characterizations, and as one expects from Jacobson, it is in this exaggeration that the comedy lies. But we know, of course, that only the most serious of issues lie at the heart of good comedy.

DSCN1313 - Version 3Just what is the future of the novel in the age of the “ap”; of the book in the age of the ereader? Is, as Guy’s publisher asks over lunch on the afternoon of his, the publisher’s, suicide, “the blog. . .the end of everything”? (28). Or will the world of words be saved by “unbooks that could be started and finished while phone users were waiting for someone to call them back, or for the traffic lights to change”? (194). Optimists will no doubt assert the novel’s continuing viability; pessimists won’t. I must admit to vacillation on the subject.

DSCN1313 - Version 3About writing and publishing, I find myself somewhat nostalgic for the idea of being able to leave a manuscript on a publisher’s doorstep and of being confident it would read. Perhaps such tales are in fact apocryphal. I am somewhat nostalgic for a time when reading was possibly a slower, more private activity than it appears now, when authors didn’t have to shill their own books at readers’ groups and at the apparently ever-growing number of literary “festivals.” I find the whole practice of “fandom” somehow distasteful. But I remind myself that these situations are not just contemporary phenomena; think of the halls that filled for Dickens reading.

DSCN1313 - Version 3To return to Zoo Time itself. I rate it highly. Guy Abelman isn’t the most attractive of characters but he is eminently humanly flawed and therefore sympathetic. I enjoyed as I have in others of his works, Jacobson’s ability to evoke place and characters’ response to the places they find themselves in or thought they had left behind. What remains with me most, though, is that sense of melancholy that is always just behind the comic mask. Where there is love there is also loss. Where life; also death. For there to be future, there must be a past.








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