Review: ‘J’

Everything about the presentation of Jacobson’s new novel, J, screams that it is a book to be ‘taken seriously’. From the stark black and red minimalist jacket cover (not the colours of Fascism by coincidence), to the blurb declaring it to ‘be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World’ and the quoted critical acclaim that announces Jacobson as ‘A great, great writer’, the design places J outside of Jacobson’s previous comic oeuvre.


Set in a dystopian future after a catastrophic event known only as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, the narrative follows Kevern and Ailinn, two misfits who find love against the odds in a world filled with violence, hate, and secrets in a case of mass social trauma. WHAT HAPPENED, we later find out, was the systematic annihilation of the world’s Jews. This revelation immediately alters one’s perception of the entire novel; consequently, the final eighty pages of J are easily its finest, as Jacobson’s writing begins to live up to the promises of the book’s design. Particularly disturbing is the final position he finds for Judaism in society, that it must flourish in order to restore the ‘hate balance’, allowing people their scapegoat so that they stop taking out their unresolved hatred and anger upon each other.

The climax of J tackles some particularly uncomfortable ideas with alarming accuracy; J is effective for the same reason that Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 study of the Holocaust, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, caused such uproar. Both expose with devastating effect the idea that the apathy of ‘good people’ is the easiest way for evil to prevail, and that prejudice, shame, and fear can lead people to do unexpected and terrifying things. This has resonances across the political field today, particularly after the election of various far-right parties in the European elections and in light of recent campaigns for widespread participation in combating gender equality, climate change, and sexual prejudice to name but a few, making J an extremely timely psychological study. Presenting the possibility that any one of us could be someone who metes out destruction in J, whether by standing by while others play active roles (like Rhoda’s schoolteacher), or by raising a hand to strike the first blow ourselves (like Edward Everett Phineas Zermansky), makes you ask the question, ‘What would I do?’ And very often, this is the most terrifying question of all.

However, the impact of presenting questions like this within novels lies in their execution, and unfortunately the desire to be taken seriously was the overriding impression left on me by the first 240 pages of J. Chapter titles such as ‘Call me Ishmael’ in self-indulgent references to Moby Dick lie alongside unsurprising, ubiquitous mentions of Wagner (for where would a novel about anti-Semitism be without a mention of opera’s most famous anti-Semite?), and jarring sentences such as jazz being ‘Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude.’ Perhaps the greatest problem lay in the discrepancy between the seriousness of Jacobson’s subject matter and the intrusion of his more comic tendencies, as in the following passage:

A compliant society meant that every section of it consented with gratitude – the gratitude of the providentially spared – to the principle of group aptitude. People of Afro-Caribbean origin were suited by temperament and physique to entertainment and athletics, and so they sang and sprinted. People originally from the Indian subcontinent, electronically gifted as though by nature, undertook to ensure no family was without a functioning utility phone. What was left of the Polish community plumbed, what was left of the Greek smashed plates.

While this is a novel entirely about racial stereotyping and prejudice, jokes such as these that creep in under the skin of the narrative seem somewhat misplaced. Thankfully, the majority of the most grating writing is contained in the diary entries of the deliberately dislikable art teacher Zermansky, but for me the first two thirds of J undermined the brilliance of its final pages.

That J will stand alongside Orwell and Huxley is, perhaps, a somewhat optimistic publisher’s claim (I’m surprised more parallels haven’t also been drawn with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic We). It initially tries to be too many things; a love story, a morality tale, a thriller, a political satire, a culture lesson, a dystopian vision, a character study, and an ethical treatise, to the point that it starts to fall short of being any. Of course, life is tangled and difficult and full of these contradictions, but J is at its best once it finds its true target and hones in on it. If you can make it through to the chapter entitled ‘Götterdämmerung’ (yes, another Wagner reference), then I urge everyone to read J as there can be no more important message than that of the psychological study that it eventually turns out to be.

Leah Broad

‘J’ is available to buy from most bookstores, RRP £18.99.

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