Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson - review

by Paula Morris / 27 November, 2012
Howard Jacobson’s literary satire tries to elude potential criticisms by confessing to every possible sin.
Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson


"I know when a writer’s in trouble,” novelist Guy Ableman, the neurotic and despairing voice of Howard Jacobson’s latest black comedy, tells his agent. “When he resorts to writing about writing.” Zoo Time is, of course, a novel about a writer writing a novel – in Guy’s case, a novel about his unrequited lust for his glamorous mother-in-law, Poppy, and suspicions about his disapproving wife, wannabe novelist Vanessa.

In Guy’s gloomy view, these are dark times for writers. He traded selling clothes in the family’s chic boutique for writing books, and finds himself deeply out of fashion. The novelist is now a pariah, castigated in online reviews by the “unread”; humiliated at literary festivals where soon “the average age of the audience would be a hundred” and “there’d be funeral parlours on site”; and denounced by book club members “quivering with that rage you only encounter among readers”. (“Was it,” Guy wonders, “because reading as a civilised activity is over that the last people doing it were reduced to such fury with every page they turned? Was this the final paroxysm before expiring?”)

He laments that these days “one has to apologise for having read a book, let alone for having written one”. His publisher commits suicide after confiding that novels “are history, not because no one can write them but because no one can read them”. His agent’s implicit advice, our beleaguered hero decides, is “to move on from doing what you used to do, from hoping what you used to hope, or from hoping anything”. As hopeless Guy staggers towards an enlightenment, of sorts, the novel tries to elude potential criticisms – too much North London novelist navel-gazing and not enough story, too many predictable midlife crises and a tinge of misogyny that relegates female characters to shopping and/or ball-busting – by confessing to every possible sin.

Guy is taking the talking cure for his multiple problems, it seems, and readers will either find this bumptious voice winning or whiny. Jacobson has his shtick and his literary satire won’t appeal to everyone, but what writer of comedy does? This novel may lack the heart and complexity of The Finkler Question, for which Jacobson, contrary to his own predictions, won the 2010 Man Booker Prize, but Finkler fans who wonder, like Guy, if “the fun [has] gone out of reading now, along with everything else” will find plenty to laugh at here.

ZOO TIME, by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury, $36.99).

Paula Morris’s novel Rangatira was the fiction winner at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Jacinda Ardern pregnant: Politicians past and present lend their support
86105 2018-01-19 15:45:44Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern pregnant: Politicians past and pres…

by RNZ

Politicians from at home and abroad are reaching out to offer congratulations to the Prime Minister mum-to-be.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern is going to be a Prime Minister AND a mum
86091 2018-01-19 12:36:44Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern is going to be a Prime Minister AND…

by Katie Parker

New Zealand’s newly minted PM and bizarrely cool and normal lady Jacinda Ardern has announced that she and partner Clarke Gayford are expecting a baby

Read more
Jacinda Ardern announces pregnancy
86074 2018-01-19 11:11:36Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern announces pregnancy

by RNZ

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that she is pregnant, with the baby due in June.

Read more
What the media silly season taught us
85933 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Politics

What the media silly season taught us

by Graham Adams

To the eternal gratitude of media chiefs, each holiday period seems to throw up at least one minor scandal that runs in the absence of anything newsy.

Read more
Richard Prebble: Jacinda Ardern will face the tyranny of events
86009 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Politics

Richard Prebble: Jacinda Ardern will face the tyra…

by Richard Prebble

I predicted Bill English would lose the election and the winner would be Winston Peters. But no forecaster, including the PM, predicted her pregnancy.

Read more
Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’
85966 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z World

Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’

by Justin Bennett

It's known as a 'suicide forest', but Justin Bennett found Aokigahara's quiet beauty outweighed its infamous reputation.

Read more
Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance of Len Lye
85816 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Arts

Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance …

by Sally Blundell

New essays on New Zealand-born US artist Len Lye elevate him to the status of Australasia’s most notable 20th-century artist.

Read more
Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infertile couples
86046 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infe…

by Nicky Pellegrino

For about a third of infertility cases in New Zealand, there is no obvious reason why seemingly fertile couples struggle to conceive.

Read more