Thursday, December 16, 2010
REVIEW: The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson
The upset winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, The Finkler Question is nonetheless not exactly a crowd-pleaser. A serious, sophisticated novel about emotionally and intellectually challenging problems, focusing on a niche topic (how to be Jewish- and not- in modern day Great Britain) and a satire to boot, it's simply not destined for universal adulation. But that doesn't mean it's not a good book.
The center of the novel is the identity crisis of a loser named Julian Treslove. Julian Treslove has failed at just about everything. He's failed at a conventional career with the BBC. He's failed in love; he's failed at being a parent. Now a fairly successful impersonator of the famous, about the only thing he is good at is pretending to be someone else.
One night as Julian comes home after an evening out, he is mugged. He believes that his attacker was a woman, which makes him feel like a failure as a man, and he believes that his attacker called him a Jew. This gets Julian to thinking. He has two close friends- Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik. Sam is successful and rich, a younger man who's made a career as a writer and Libor is an older emigre from Eastern Europe, recently mourning the death of his wife. Julian admires them both and both Sam and Libor are Jewish. Somewhere in the back of Julian's mind, something takes hold, and, hanging his hat on the belief that his mother may have been of Jewish descent, he decides to be Jewish, too. And things start looking up for Julian. His sons, estranged and contemptuous of their father, take a little more interest. Julian falls in love with the voluptuous, artistic Earth-mother Hephzibah, who seems to love him back.
But this, too, will probably not work out. Sam is a lackadaisical activist in an anti-Zionist group and tries, in his personal and public life, to define the boundaries of what gentiles can do and how he will allow or not allow them to participate in Jewish life; he doesn't support Julian on principle. In one scene, Sam excoriates a gentile woman for having an opinion on the Israel/Palestine dispute, saying in effect that because she's not Jewish she has no right to comment. Libor can't figure out why Julian would want to be Jewish in the first place. Julian wants Hephzibah to be a kind of uber-Jewess but she just wants to be herself. The more Julian tries to participate in his friends' Jewish world, the more he's excluded from it and the more bitter he becomes. In the end it's a tragedy that bursts his bubble and forces all of them apart.
Being Jewish, it seems, is not as simple as putting on a kippah and flashing your mother's DNA like a ticket. Ultimately Julian's problem is that it's a pose, like his celebrity impersonation business. It's just not who he is. He idealizes the Jewish world only to be disappointed by the reality as he experiences it. For me, Julian's internal process figuring out his place in this new-to-him world is fascinating to watch. The experience of the gentile in the Jewish world is not a topic often addressed in literature (the only other example I can think of is Chandler Burr's very different novel, You or Someone Like You) and the degree of empathy and insight that Jacobson has into his confused protagonist is pretty impressive. He nails it; he really does, and he does it with some humor, too. This is not an easy thing to talk about- not without sounding like a jerk, anyway, and some people might still think Julian is a jerk. I think he merely allows himself to be mislead by his own failures and weak sense of self into a fight he can't win.
A character-driven novel for the literary reader, I'll admit The Finkler Question is not the most exciting page-turner out there. It's not the right book for the page-turner crowd anyway. And I know there were other Booker nominees that received more universal applause. So what. It's a brave, important book and I'd recommend it for readers who are willing to stretch themselves a little to take on a challenging subject. You're not going to love Julian; you may not even like him. You may think he's dead wrong and in need of a good smack upside the head. And Jacobson's book may make you frustrated and uncomfortable, but it may also make you think, and that's what great literature is really all about.
See also: Melissa's great review at Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.