Remember everything and you have no future.
What happens when the burden of countless genocides finally becomes too heavy to bear, and—after a last, great conflagration—society takes a conscious vow of collective amnesia? What happens when antagonistic identities are deliberately weeded out, when "the past exists, so that we may forget it" (p. 19), when art, commerce, and daily intercourse are all shaped by the overriding imperative to maintain an undisturbed harmony and equilibrium? Howard Jacobson's J, recently shortlisted for the Booker, is a disturbing and sometimes frightening story about these questions.
Otherwise well-known as a comic writer, and as the author of the Booker-winning 2010 novel The Finkler Question, this is Jacobson's first foray into science fiction. From his earlier avatar, Jacobson brings to the field a great felicity with dialogue, a dry wit, and dark—even gallows—humor. But for all that, in terms of its premise, its characters, and—most of all—its conclusion, Jacobson's novel fits snugly into a genre that he is supposedly a newcomer to.
Set in a world recovering from an incident that is only described as "WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED"—when it is described at all—J straddles two long-standing traditions in science fiction storytelling: the post-apocalyptic novel (along the lines of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake  and Walter Tevis's Mockingbird ), and the totalitarian dystopia (rubbing shoulders with Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984, and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, to name just three classic examples). But because of its dissonant elements, J sits uneasily in any neat, taxonomical scheme. The post-apocalyptic world is a crumbling world, but not one that has gone to pieces: cars and telephones work, London is populated, and civilization—in a manner of speaking—carries on. Perhaps more significantly, the dystopia itself is not—to use Orwell's image—the boot perpetually stamping underfoot a human face. As we learn early on, about non-conformist music: "nothing was banned exactly—simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude. Popular taste did what edict and proscription could never have done" (p. 13). This is not the dystopia of Big Brother, but something else altogether—the imperceptible, cloyingly dull compulsion of social conformity.
In 2003, the political scientist Sheldon Wolin coined the term "inverted totalitarianism" to describe contemporary societies, which share some of the features of public control that were perfected in Nazi Germany, but also differ in certain crucial respects. One important difference is that Nazi totalitarianism depended on mass mobilization, enthusiasm, and fervor towards the State (recall those moments of public exultation and hatred towards the "enemy" Goldberg in 1984), whereas inverted totalitarianism rests upon widespread public passivity, and failure to engage or participate in political and societal change. And passivity is the defining feature of J's world. As one of the characters tells us, of how universal apologies have replaced conflict and discord: "and generally—if not individually—the habit of delivering brisk, catch-all apologies is much to be preferred to morbid memory which embalms the past in the Proustian fluids of the maudlin" (p. 34).
Totalitarian dystopias, which often replicate Nazi rule taken to its terrifying, logical conclusion, are a staple feature of science fiction; J, however, is perhaps one of the first significant explorations of inverted totalitarianism, and a fine one at that. Perhaps, in times to come, it will be treated more as tradition-defining, than as an important continuation of an existing tradition.
J tracks the story of two lovers—Kevern and Ailin—as they negotiate their way through their passive existences in a passive world. Unsurprisingly, all is not well amidst the harmony and the superficial unventfulness. Random, sporadic acts of violence break out from time to time, senseless incidents of assault, rape, and even murder. At first, it is possible to dismiss them as the outbreaks of the yet-incompletely repressed tendencies to violence. But as the incidents grow in magnitude and frequency, it becomes clear that there is something deeper to the malaise, a pathology that infects all of society. Collective amnesia and a submergence of identity have bought a tense, disintegrating peace, but at seemingly too high a cost.
What divided Homo sapiens from brute creation was the need to apportion responsibility. If a lion went hungry or a chimpanzee could not find a mate, it was no one's fault. But from the dawn of time man had been blaming the climate, the terrain, fate, the gods, some other tribe or just some other person. (p. 108)
With this diagnosis, Esme Nussbaum, a public employee determined to restore society to its equilibrium, sets out to cure the source of the ills: to allow people to say again, "I am who I am because I am not them" (p. 245), that fundamental condition of all human existence. To restore the balance of social antagonism, her quest leads her to Ailin and Kevern, and to a final, shocking climax.
One of the great themes of literature is the loss and reclamation of identity. Historical erasure and retrieval have fascinated writers of all stripes. The contemporary Albanian writer Ismail Kadare is particularly famous for his stories seeking the soul of a nation in its songs, its traditions, and its epic poetry. In the world of fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana (1990) is built entirely upon the quest of a people who have been at the receiving end of a sorcerer’s spell that—literally—has wiped their names off the face of the earth, and from memory. From The Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Amber, characters seek for what has been lost, and often, what has been lost is that most ambiguous of all things, "identity." What unites these books is a keen sympathy for the quest, and the conviction that everyone needs an identity, and that the struggle to reclaim a lost identity is a noble and inspiring one.
J, too, is about lost identity. But here again, Jacobson takes a familiar theme, and comes at it from a different perspective entirely. J is about the dark, sinister side of identities. "If what I am seeking comes about," says Esme Nussbaum, "we will once again enjoy the stability of knowing who we're not" (p. 305). Paradoxically, the stability of the human race is predicated upon an endless, ongoing conflict, and identities—antagonistic identities—are the essential catalysts for conflict. The identity-building project in J, then, is a dark and terrifying one: it is a prelude to a holocaust. This is one time when historical erasure no longer seems an obstacle to be surmounted, but—like Plato’s myth of the earthborn—a necessary lie told for the sake of humanity.
"It's all illusion. Identity is nothing but illusion" (p. 315). Esme again, and this is a common enough sentiment. But here, the illusion is the backbone of conflict, and conflict is the backbone of societal survival. So seductively and so gradually do Jacobson's characters insert this point of view into the world, that one is almost—almost—taken in by it.
This is not to suggest that J is the perfect novel. Readers may find that the pace is slow at times, and the plot is sometimes riddled with irrelevancies, with characters that make brief, passing appearances upon the stage, and then are heard of no more, with no satisfactory resolution. Above all else, Jacobson cannot resist inserting his own politics into the novel. By the middle of J, it becomes clear that WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, was a second Holocaust. It is never stated explicitly, but even the oblique references are enough: "those who had been the object of WHAT HAPPENED weren't just any old, interchangeable excuse for civil riot, they occupied a particular, even privileged, place in the nation's taxonomy of fear and loathing" (p. 255). This, in itself, is unexceptionable—even necessary, for the plot. But in one of the flashbacks, a victim recalls people outside a shop, calling for a boycott of the country to which the proprietor belonged. From the context, it is clear that this is a barely-veiled reference to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), against Israel. In juxtaposing it with massacres that followed immediately, Jacobson is accusing the BDS movement of facilitating a second Holocaust. Whatever the political merits of this argument, it would be well-taken in the politics section of a newspaper (and Jacobson has made it there). In the middle of an otherwise brilliant novel, though, it feels discordant, forced and intrusive.
Jacobson's inability to resist infusing his own political views into the novel is a weakness, but by no means an insurmountable one. J is well-deserving of a place in the canon. In a review, The Guardian compared it to 1984 and Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, but J is a unique creation in its own right.
Gautam Bhatia is based in New Delhi, India. When not at his day job as a lawyer and legal academic, he tries to lay hands on the latest works of historical and speculative fiction—with a particular taste for high fantasy and Orwellian dystopias—and read them from cover to cover. He has reviewed before for the Jadaliyya Magazine, and blogs about books at anenduringromantic.
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