Monday, January 07, 2013

Chameleon on rye, please

“It’s All Happening at the Zoo,” my review of Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time, is this morning’s feature at Jewish Ideas Daily. I can’t claim credit for the title. It was the inspired choice of Suzanne Garment, my editor.

Jacobson doesn’t share the attitude expressed by Paul Simon’s lyric; he is not a fan of animal symbolism, even when it’s carefree and unserious. (Especially then.) Not for him a little harmless anthropomorphism. For Jacobson, the morphism works the other way: “[I]t is not the animals who must check their satiric bona fides out with us, but we who must continuously put ourselves to school with them.” His monkeys do not “stand for honesty,” but exactly the reverse: they belong, he says, quoting D. H. Lawrence (a favorite source), “to the ages before brains were invented.” That’s why a comparison of men to monkeys is so apt.

In his twelfth novel, Jacobson’s hero is a Jewish novelist by the name of Guy Ableman, whose literary debut, which made a splash when it was first published thirteen years before, was called Who Gives a Monkey’s? It told the story of an Orthodox Jewish girl who left the fold (“I haven't left the fold,” she protests, “I just want the space to question”), taking a job as a zookeeper. “And nothing calls Judaism into question quite like monkeys,” she says. The novel’s real subject, though, is—not the fine line that divided animals and humans, nothing so trite—but the greater inhumanity and self-disloyalty of humans. Apes knew rage and spite and boredom right enough, but they were not cynical as mankind was. Crazed with undifferentiated lust they might have been, but they were serious in their monkeydom, understood what being of their species entailed, weren’t forever jumping ship and crossing over the way humans did, and cared for one another.This is as good a statement of Jacobson’s fundamental vision of man as you’re likely to get. No wonder human beings are so funny when they act like apes. They are least themselves then. “Hence the persistence of what is animal in what is comic,” Jacobson writes in Seriously Funny, his 1997 study of humor. “[C]omedy scratches and jeers at us from quite some other place and from quite some other time.”

And no wonder Jews are so serious about humor. Not for them what Walker Percy calls angelism, the neurotic condition in which one yearns for deliverance from man’s animal nature. The Jews are forever aware of the fine line which divides them from the creatures that are not Jewish. Nothing calls Jewishness into question quite so much, and is quite so tempting. When a Christian invites a Jew to dinner, he is likely to ask the Jew’s position on pig. Jacobson was hilarious on the question in a speech last year at the Index on Censorship awards ceremony:In fact, the Book of Leviticus comes down as hard against lapwing, chameleon and tortoise as it does against pig, yet no one ever checks to see where I stand on chameleon. Only ever pig. Do people hear my name and automatically conjure up pig? Anybody would think I’m a banker.Eating pork has been done to death. Only a simpleton would think he could break with Judaism by gobbling something as commonplace as a BLT. But chameleon. . . . Now there’s disloyalty to Judaism.

As I say in my Jewish Ideas Daily review, this intimacy with the deepest springs of Jewish feeling—deeper than anything to be found in Philip Roth, with whom he is routinely and doltishly compared—is what makes Howard Jacobson unique. Start with Zoo Time, if only to laugh at those who keep shouting about the death of books, and then double back on his three best novels: The Mighty Walzer, Kalooki Nights, and The Finkler Question. Don’t neglect his debut Coming from Behind, a sort of Jewish Lucky Jim, or my personal favorite The Very Model of a Man, narrated by Adam’s firstborn Cain. Oh, hell. Read anything by Jacobson you can get your hands on. You’ll never laugh the same again.


nicole said...

I happened to read Zoo Time last week (I must have seen you mention it; I hardly ever read anything contemporary recommended by anyone else) and was completely blown away by how funny Jacobson is. Started The Might Walzer this morning and loving it. And at first I kept doing the Roth comparison, mentally, because he does it himself (or, rather, Guy Ableman does it), but the further I read the more I was thinking, "that's not quite right."