The OF Blog: Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (2010 Booker Prize winner)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (2010 Booker Prize winner)

'Do you know anyone called Juno?' Treslove asked.

'J'know know Juno?' Finkler replied, making inexplicable J noises between his teeth.

Treslove didn't get it.

'J'you know Juno?  Is that what you're asking me?'

Treslove still didn't get it.  So Finkler wrote it down.  D'Jew know Jewno?

Treslove shrugged.  'Is that supposed to be funny?'

'It is to me,' Finkler said, 'But please yourself.'

'Is it funny for a Jew to write the word Jew?  Is that what's funny?'

'Forget it,' Finkler said.  'You wouldn't understand.' (p. 16)

This early exchange between the late fortyish Julian Treslove and his university associate and occasional friend, Samuel Finkler, serves as an excellent entry point for discussing Howard Jacobson's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question.  The passage above contains a sort of dry, sometimes self-deprecating wit to it.  Treslove, confused in love and drifting aimless through relationships and his job at the BBC, is perhaps too apparently earnest, both to himself and in his presentation to the readers.  He so desperately wants to fit in, to "get it," even when his lack of experiences keep him from comprehending what exactly is transpiring around him.  Finkler, on the other hand, is a bourgeois English Jew, one who has been through the casual and overt antisemitism that can be found in Europe and the Americas even today.  He, as the reader later learns, is an anti-Zionist Jew who finds certain aspects of Jewish society, culture, and traditions to be rather ridiculous at times, but he is also someone whose complicated relationship with his native culture (and sometimes, occasionally, his religious faith) makes him a near-perfect foil for the eternally-questing Treslove.  Whether or not The Finkler Question is worth exploring in depth is going to be up to how positively the reader will react to passages such as the one above. 

The Finkler Question depends almost solely on the character dynamics given above; there is little unifying plot beyond the exploration, often through comic scenes, of Treslove's search for self-identity, played out through his inability to grasp just what it was that Finkler shared with a former professor of theirs, Libor, beyond their ethnic origin and the recent loss of their wives.  This 307 page novel is more a series of vignettes that explore matters such as what it means to be a Jew, how can a Jew be an anti-Zionist without being guilty of self-loathing, and why there can be such differences in opinion and outlook among those people who are often divided by a common religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage.  To his credit, Jacobson does leaven these weighty matters with a wry, satirical humor that serves as an undercurrent throughout all of the character exchanges throughout this novel.  However, after a while, these comic scenes lose their effectiveness, as there is a dull, dreary sameness to how Jacobson explores these issues through the baffled, casual racist viewpoint of Treslove.

Although there is nothing singularly bad that I would care to point out (outside of the redundancy of certain themes and how those are executed in certain character exchanges), the biggest complaint I have about The Finkler Question is that ultimately it feels rather small.  Perhaps it is due to having read several novels by Saul Bellow and Philip Roth over the years, but The Finkler Question does not tread any new ground that Bellow or Roth explored, often in more vivid and "important" ways.  It is a short, clever novel which in the end just recapitulates what other Jewish novelists have said before about being Jewish surrounded by blundering, occasionally malicious non-Jews.  There is nothing original about it, outside of it being a decent read that entertains the reader to the point where a few questions might be raises.  Ultimately, it is a forgettable novel, largely due to its characters being smaller than real life in scope, feel, and relevance.  Treslove, Finkler, Libor, and the various female characters that pop up and serve as set pieces for changing the focus from one point of misunderstanding to another?  They end up being little more than small characters, lacking in magnanimity or relevance; their problems define them, without anything ever really being stated other than that some things, some groups just won't ever understand. 

If a reader wants little more than a cleverly-written vignette novel that explores issues of identity and loss through comic, satirical scenes, then The Finkler Question might be the sort of novel to read.  However, for myself, although I was never truly disengaged, I also never found this novel to say anything that had not already been said previously by authors whose scenes and characters were more alive and memorable than are Jacobson's.  Therefore, The Finkler Question is merely a "good" novel that accomplishes what it sets out to do, while at the same time never rising above its original intents.  It is not the book I would have chosen for the Booker Prize based on what I have read of the shortlist to date, as it lacks the narrative virtuosity or subject appeal of several of the others on the list.  It simply is what it is and perhaps it is best judged by how you reacted to the quoted exchange above.


Anonymous said...

I think I have to read this book.

Roh said...

I want very badly to read the entire shortlist (except for V, which somehow I am not very keen on - for no good reason). I'm a bit worried now I've read your review - you make it sound not even shortlist-worthy. :(

Lsrry said...

I've read the entire shortlist now and let's just say the others are, with one other exception, very worthy of being there. The Jacobson, on the other hand, just didn't have anything to say that wasn't said before by others.

C is 4th or 5th-best in my opinion. I hope to review the rest over the next week, along with the National Book Award finalists.

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