“How is it possible”, chundered The Times, “to read Howard Jacobson and not lose oneself in admiration for the music of his language, the power of his characterisation and the penetration of his insight?” After starting The Finkler Question, which won the Man Booker 2010, I wondered if it would be possible for me to finish it.
I don’t slate novels often, or casually. Partly this is because I rarely dislike all of a book; three hundred pages of dreck can be redeemed with one insight, one funny set piece, one pithy sentence. But this novel won the Booker, and I am struggling to point out a redeeming characteristic or an enjoyable moment. There were a few smirk-worthy gags, I suppose, but it seemed to wobble like a drunk uncle between antic, silly comedy and meditations on death and friendship and Jewishness. God knows it avoided anything unseemly like an actual plot.
I mean, Jesus Christ, have we set our literary standard so low that this boring, boring, pointless novel can be published to a golden shower of praise?
John Banville commented a few years ago that “the kind of novels that I write very rarely win the Man Booker Prize, which in general promotes good, middlebrow fiction.” The Finkler Question is certainly middlebrow, but I would hesitate to call it good. The central conceit, which sets up the protagonist as an absurdly naïve semitophile, is laboured and silly. The characters are, I suppose, caricatures; but Jacobson can’t seem to decide how far he wants to exaggerate them, and as a result all we really get is an outline of a personality. Exploring the different responses of the British Jewish community to the situation in Israel is actually a pretty good idea for a novel, so it’s a shame Jacobson feels compelled to bounce us around unlikely friendships and contrived relationships as well.
It’s a pity that such an offensively bland novel has won the Booker when exhilarating work like Tom McCarthy’s C was shortlisted. However, it’s not really a surprise, given the committee was chaired by the offensively bland Andrew Motion. I really, genuinely believe that fiction can still be relevant, that telling stories is crucial to understanding the world we live in. Reading a good book can be like having a conversation; The Finkler Question is just mumbling to itself.