J is opened to uncover the enigma of J. It will not be a long search. Howard Jacobson is not in the business of playing Late Reveal in his first SF novel, a tale of such monadic intensity that every sentence reads like an aliquot sample of the whole, as though the terror within—a terror that cannot be specified in a novel which is about the cost of not mentioning what it is about—were so intrinsicate that even "secretly" it must expose itself to us from the beginning: as Jacobson surely intends. But this is perhaps to become metaphysical before the horse. Jacobson, who has acerbically disdained foregrounded genres like SF in the past (though what could be more generically foregrounded than the comic novels which made his name?), does know that the terrible world of J must not only seem immanent but must also be told, or no reader will be able to get there. So a narrative does hove into view.
Wise readers of twenty-first century fantastika will not, all the same, given J's author, be much surprised at its abstractish fogged-in setting, somewhere in something like southern Cornwall, in something like Near Future England, perhaps around the year 2080; nor will they fail to note the seeming lack of extrapolative imagination in the rendering of a Near Future in which, beyond the moral catastrophe at its heart, nothing much has changed. But to baulk at this point would be to dismiss Jacobson as just another typical mainstream writer of SF up shit creek without a toolkit; which is mostly unfair. Nothing much has changed in J because the world it depicts has been frozen shut by a self-poisoning denial of guilt about an unnamed and unnamable catastrophe that had afflicted the land—or that the citizens of the land inflicted—perhaps sixty years before, just a few years up from 2014. This is the terror within that J cannot utter aloud but which, in Jacobson's superbly controlled unpacking of the costs of not uttering that which cannot be spoken, permeates every word.
What might be called the Reveal, but should perhaps better be described as the Premise, comes very soon, without of course the book saying so, on page 6 of the UK edition. Kevern "Coco" Cohen, a solitary carver of tchotchkes for the tiny "Cornwall" tourist trade, checks for messages on his phone, which makes or takes local calls only:
all other forms of electronic communication having been shut down after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, to the rapid spread of whose violence social media were thought to have contributed
and as soon as we realize that the phrase WHAT HAPPENED . . . will be reiterated through J, and that WHAT HAPPENED will never be referred to directly, the penny drops. It does not have very far to fall. In his "Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen" (given 1958), the poet Paul Celan (1920-1970), who was a Holocaust survivor, attempts to convey the effect of the Final Solution on any attempts to describe it:
It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened. . . .
The phrase "that which happened" has become famous as a tag description of the numbing: the cultural and linguistic tragedy of not being able to say the unsayable: but more importantly to J the systemic poisonousness of failing to try. Even if (which I think is inconceivable) Jacobson did not intend the linkage, no reader familiar with Celan's phrase could miss the import of WHAT HAPPENED in J. WHAT HAPPENED is a lede or lemma at the head of J, and the relationship of its text to that lemma is exegetical. If the narrative that unpacks itself in obedience to this role seems less fantastika than allegory, then that may be a central cost of knowing the truth before you tell it; but of course there is more to it than that. Like any lemma, WHAT HAPPENED does not only tell us what to think. It also tells us what not to think.
WHAT HAPPENED in J is a countrywide genocide commited around 2020 against the Jews of England. They are the J the book is all about, a single letter written on the title page (but not the spine) of the Cape edition with two strikethroughs scored laterally across it. There is no mystery here. As readers we focus not on a non-existent mystery but on the mystery of not naming it. Every line of the book is fraught with amnesia, iron hand within velvet glove, sicklied o'er. To inoculate its citizens from WHAT HAPPENED, every person and every place has by fiat been arbitrary renamed. Whether directly creative or performative, the arts as a whole are seemingly self-censored in order to avoid stress: anything touching on Modernism or political dispute is avoided; genre landscapes are mandatorily (but gently) valued over inherently transgressive urban visions. Citizens are gently persuaded not to "hoard" anything that might remind them of the past. Only slowly does it come clear that this Enid Blyton surface is increasingly fractured by a stink of unspoken rancour (which Jacobson conveys through some masterful ellipses and turnings-away of his prose from what we know is there), an increasingly intense misogyny, domestic violence, murders; disguisedly anti-Semitic spite conveyed mainly through the missishly lubricious journal of a failed artist and apparatchik straight out of Jacobson's earlier work. And without overt acts of betrayal (reported to whom?: though omnipresent, the government is imperceivable), everyone seems to be a spy. It is a STASI world without a scapegoat to focus on.
There are two protagonists, neither of them perceived by others as being genuinely native to "Cornwall"; readers will surely assume very early on that both Kevern and his lover Ailinn are Jews, and that they can't remember (or were never told) that this is so. Whatever they might say or believe, in other words, biological destiny somehow stamps them as Jews. This dooms them. Twenty years before, a researcher named Esme had already begun to home in on the problem: that in the absence of an enemy, English society was becoming a stew with no vent. But only now has her thesis become incontrovertible. Off-set she has been assigned to work something out. She boards with Ailinn, befriending her, doing her best to ensure her survival. For she is needed. The novel ends in tragedy and comeuppance:
Ailinn felt her heart crash into her chest. Esme Nussbaum heard it from the other end of the room and turned to look. She scowled.
They both knew.
"This is not a good way to start", Ailinn said, "with anger between us".
"On the contrary", Esme said, "this is the best possible way to start".
In the world of WHAT HAPPENED, nothing more can be said.
As a narrative utterance conveyed in terms of a terrifying, menacingly grammatical reticence, J is brilliantly implacable, stunningly shaped around an absence that it curses without saying so. But this is a double-edged sword. Nowadays it's only "literary" novels -- like sheep in wolves' clothing -- which are allowed to pretend to bite into the fantasticated world they claim to recognize, without paying the piper. Too many mainstream novels of SF are vitiated by a handwavium hauteur when it comes to the task of creating engines of explanation to encase their tasty Big SF Thinks in a load-bearing context ("Contexting? Our servants will do that for us"). Novels of fantastika, on the other hand, are normally expected to show some knowledge of the rules of the world, of the tramlines of consequence, of the cost of living. As an allegory, intended to teach as much about the world as any of the three twentieth century dystopias any standard-issue critic will be able to remember and instantly to cite (so I won't), J is a didactic bombshell. But as a book about the world it lacks engine.
All the same. J does have the appearance of being an SF novel, which is to say it presents itself as an arguable continuation of history by other means: this being a central definition of sf. As it is in this sense responsible for its content, J therefore needs to present the amnesia-engendering atrocity at its heart as an extrapolative argument from history: and not as an allegorical fantasia, which would in fact be obscene, for it would demean the Holocaust to treat "that which happened" as an occasion to riff on. J cannot survive any attempt to detach it from its irrefragable bondage to the story of the Western World from 1940 onward, which includes the amnesia which began to coat our memories in Year Zero, and which is continuous with us here and now. It is in that light that WHAT MUST BE SAID about J is that through its obliteration of plausible continuity, Jacobson has created a second amnesia.
One of the lessons imparted by the Final Solution is that no human being is a non person. Our history as a civilization cannot tolerate any counter claim. Nor can our planet. Nor, to get down to local cases, in my understanding of what we are here to do, can fantastika tolerate any counter claim. Very simply, then, to imagine an England six years from now where it is the Jewish community which is conceivably at risk from genocidal violence is to commit amnesia on—is to Disappear, is to treat as non-person—hundreds of thousands of human beings at far greater risk at this point in our continuous history, many of them of course being Muslim citizens of this island on this planet. The England Jacobson has created has been censored. I think he is telling a tale which misprisions the very world he claims to honour through his evocation of the Holocaust: which HAPPENED not to Jews but to human beings who were Jews. To think anything else is to think that the Holocaust does not inform history but overrides it. In so far as it breaks continuity with the world, J creates the very future it lacerates.
A few words about The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis's non-fantastic new novel set almost entirely in Auschwitz. It includes an "Acknowledgments and Afterward: 'That Which Happened'." It comprises three first person narratives, each in a reliable voice. Golo Thomsen, an initially opportunistic relative of Martin Bormann, deflects his growing awareness of the abysm into which he is falling, first through a sentimental (but increasingly grounded) love for the wife of the Camp Commandant, and second through his successful attempts to sabotage German industrialists' attempts to use inmates as slave labour, his motive being to hasten Germany's defeat. The narrative of Paul Doll, the Commandant, is a virtuoso impersonation of an abyssal absence of Good, initially in terms of an almost slapstick banality of Evil (for he is a grotesque preening buffoon), finally in terms of an insanity that almost suppurates on the page (he kills people with his bare hands). The third voice, that of Szmul, a Jew kept alive to head a team of other Jews whose job it is to strip corpses of anything "useful", is also unbearable.
The novel is funny—it reminds me of Tom Disch's early 1960s project, never realized, to write an Auschwitz comedy in the form of a parody of Thornton Wilder's Our Town—in maybe the same way Guernica is funny. It is at points as heartwrenchingly surreal as H G Adler's The Journey (written 1950; published in German 1960; English translation 2008). It comes as close as possible to that which cannot be said. It does not commit amnesia.