Before chancing his nose outside his cottage in the morning, Kevern 'Coco' Cohen turned up the volume on the loop-television, poured tea – taking care to place the cup carelessly on the hall table – and checked twice to be certain that his utility phone was on and flashing. A facility for making and receiving local telephone 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 – the utility phone flashed a malarial yellow until someone rang, and then it glowed vermilion. But it rarely rang. This, too, he left on the hall table. Then he rumpled the silk Chinese hallway runner – a precious heirloom – with his shoe. (pp. 5-6)2010 Booker Prize winner and current finalist Howard Jacobson has been known for comic novels that explore the darker elements of English Jewish society. In his latest novel, J (actually with two marks through the letter), however, Jacobson eschews even the trappings of comic satire for a tale that might be considered dystopic not so much for the outer trappings of a society after some social upheaval, but for how his characters are developed in relation to an event that is so profound that they refer to it as "WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED." While the mysteries of that and why Kevern 'Coco' Cohen puts two fingers to his mouth when pronouncing certain words that begin with "J" might appeal to readers, it is Jacobson's probing of how we try to communicate through the silences that we enforce through perfunctory social niceties that make J a fascinating and sometimes disturbing read.
There are a couple of main subplots that dovetail toward the end. Kevern's half-stifled "J" talk, which is semi-abandoned through his arc in favor of slightly more direct talk of what has actually transpired over the decades leading up to Kevern's tale, is but one small segment of a whole spectrum of social self-silencing that has taken place in Britain after some awful events decades before. There are no email accounts, no social media, television is strictly regulated, even the language of social discourse has been altered – there is a sense of a great, horrific story lurking behind the stony silences of the newly-altered language itself. Kevern's own surname, Cohen, is a clue, but not necessarily the blatant one some might suspect. Related to this is the seemingly weird behavior of a young adult orphan, Alinn, and how she sees her future and Kevern's intertwined. This second subplot, however, is not as well-fleshed as the former, and there are places where their interactions feel forced, at least until the latter part of the novel, where more effort is made to connect the two.
I referenced dystopic fiction above not because it is an easy catch-all term for describing a near-future society that would make for an uneasy dwelling experience for contemporary readers, but because J does something interesting here: there is not a focus so much on the material aspects of this culture, but instead on how the characters are altered by this new societal order. Take for instance the half-stifled "j" words said, words like "jazz" or "Jesus" or "joke." These are words that have become here "j" words, just as we have today the "N word" and the "C word" to denote words that we know what they mean but we durst not utilize them due to their offensive natures. We speak around them, half-allude to them, knowing what we want to imply, but not daring to voice directly those darkly talismanic words lest they evoke hatred and contempt. Therefore, it is interesting to see a similar effect caused by these "j" words through the narrative. What does it mean to have these seemingly-disconnected words being smothered by their erstwhile speakers?
This I suspect is the main thrust of Jacobson's book. There is indeed another "j" word, one that is never really even half-uttered, that does come to dominate the others. It is the reason behind "WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED" and how the reader chooses to react to this ultimate "j" word might determine how she comprehends the final parts of the novel. That "j" word, which I shall not utter here for purposes related to exploring Jacobson's themes, has led to wholesale surname changes. It has led to a polite relabeling of urban areas, all in an effort to efface a calamity of violence that unfolded decades before. It is a cause, if not necessarily the main one, behind the peculiar semantic shifts certain words have taken in the interim. In not talking about it, the characters are constantly reacting to IT. The effects this has on Kevern and Alinn's self-identities, along with certain others, is chilling not because of what is said or done, but because of what is implied and suspected.
J, however, is not a perfect novel. There are times where the subplots bow down and threaten to collapse under the weight of its narrative pretense. Alinn's story in particular does not feel well-developed and more could have been done to develop her conflicted relationship with Kevern. Even the particulars behind the "j" words and the ominous "WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED" are a bit heavy-handed when more direct allusions are made to them. This results in a conclusion that feels at times a bit forced, a bit too strident in places and yet strangely empty and devoid of impetus in others. While this does detract from the power of the setting and its implications, on the whole J is Jacobson's darkest, most unsettling novel and perhaps his best vehicle for articulating some of his socio-cultural concerns. It is a worthy finalist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but I cannot help but think if it had gone just a bit further, developed its themes of identity and societal self-silencing just a bit more, that it could have become not just a very good novel but a great one.