I stopped reading properly at age 15, so I’m well-versed on my John Marsdens but not so good on new releases. This wouldn’t be a problem, except I work in a bookshop. Customers are relentlessly demanding things of me – opening hours, change and, most frustratingly, recommendations. This summer brought me a glimmer of hope. The critics had it as funny and philosophical; it won the motherflippin’ Booker. I relentlessly pitched Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question to every customer who pestered me for advice – right up until I finally read it.
Jacobson, one assumes, has written himself into his protagonists, all of them losers. Julian Treslove is a professional lookalike, suffering (understandably) from an inferiority complex, who will only sleep with women whom he can imagine dying in his arms (perhaps a subtle tinge of necrophilia here). Sam Finkler is an ‘Ashamed Jew’, circumcised but critical of Israel. Libor Sevcik, 90, also Jewish, is a paint-by-numbers widower, mourning in clichéd fashion for his recently dead Malkie. These three are particularly odious in their dismissive attitudes to women.
In the Jacobsonian lexicon, ‘Finkler’ means ‘Jewish’, thus the book deals predominately with the Jewish question. Treslove, resident Gentile, becomes fixated on Judaism and promptly winds up nestled in the plump bosom of Juno (Jewno – get it?), while Finkler and Sevcik function as barely nuanced mouthpieces for both sides of the Zionist debate. Unsympathetic and uninteresting, the three fail to shed any light on the aforementioned Question, beyond the utterance of such ill-written tripe as ‘God, being Jewish had stuff going for it!’. Jews value family. Jews are a minority. Jacobson’s cast spends 300 pages circling around such truisms like toothless sharks trapped by unremarkable prose.
And funny Jacobson is not. Declining to be described as “the English Phillip Roth”, Jacobson replied that he rather saw himself as the “Jewish Jane Austen”, a presumption of greatness that seasons the novel. But even Corinne Grant is funnier than Jacobson (and probably better-looking). The narrative relies on Finkler’s superior wit, an absurd humour in Treslove’s mutterings, and general Jewish funny to make real the characters’ interactions – but Jacobson can’t sustain it. He’s just not good enough.
There was scope for this book not to be a load of codswallop. Gentile curiosities about Jewishness, Jews’ allegiance to Israel, the impact of circumcision on the female orgasm – these themes are generous and important. Yet Jacobson dilutes them with his taste for the mundane and the unlikeable until they’re barely there at all.
The Guardian said that The Finkler Question was “full of dangerous shadows and dark, deep water”. The same goes for a long drop toilet, and I’d rather experience the latter. At least you don’t have to pay for that shit.