The Finkler Question won the 2010 Man Booker Prize, and received glowing reviews from in The Guardian and The New York Times, but if the luke-warm response from my book club and the three star rating on Amazon.com is anything to go by, this book typifies the chasm between critics and the everyday literature reader.
This is not to say that Howard Jacobson’s novel is terrible. It is funny and well written with some fantastic, witty similes. But it also self-conscious and trying, and has a central theme which many readers will not engage with.
The novel’s main character is Julian Treslove, a melodramatic narcissist who dreams of holding a woman he loves in his arms as she dies, “as often as not singing her goodbyes to him in phrases borrowed from popular Italian opera.” He earns his living impersonating celebrities at parties, despite the fact he “didn’t look like anybody famous in particular, but looked like many famous people in general, and so was in demand if not by virtue of verisimilitude, at least by virtue of versatility.”
His two best friends are Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik, both recently widowed, both Jewish. Finkler is a philosopher and television personality whose opposition to Israel leads him to join a group called ASHamed Jews; Sevkik is an eighty-something retired history lecturer and Hollywood reporter who is mourning the loss of his wife, Malkie.
After having dinner with his two friends one night and refusing Sam’s offer of a lift home in his Mercedes (not wanting to feel “envy heat up his rump”) Treslove is mugged by a woman. The fact that his attacker is female is extraordinary and emasculating enough, but it is what she may have said that becomes significant, for Treslove, having analysed the event to a painful degree that is typical of both the character and novel, believes that his assailant said, “You Ju!”
Naturally, this results in Treslove believing that he is, despite all logical evidence, Jewish. This allows the author to examine the notion of Jewishness from every possible angle, and in fact the title of the novel is effectively “The Jewish Question”, Treslove having substituted Finkler for the word Jew in his mind.
Through his characters, Jacobson explores spectrum of attitudes towards Jews. Treslove envies Jews their confidence, culture and sense of family. Libor supports the actions of Israel in establishing a “life boat” for Jews, should history repeat itself. Finkler is fashionably opposed to the action of Israelis against the Palestinians, and seeks to disassociate Zionism from Jewishness. Finkler’s dead wife, Tyler, believes she is more Jewish despite having been born a gentile because she has a deeper understanding of Jewish culture than her husband. And so on.
Herein lies one of my greatest issues with The Finkler Question: it is primarily concerned with analysing the idea of Jewishness. Yes, I understand that the different attitudes are supposed to signify something about modern society and human nature, such as Treslove associating with a historically oppressed people due to his ennui and angst. But at the same time, no other ethnic group or social issue can be interpreted in the same way as Jewishness, and unless you have some connection or interest with this topic, this novel probably won’t interest you.
Not much happens, either. There is essentially no conflict in the plot or between characters. Alot of the novel concerns characters dissecting ideas in their heads, or arguing about things, to the extent where it starts to feel like a non-fiction book.
And, if you it wasn’t obvious by now, the main character is pretty unlikable, a caricature that stretches credibility and is inconsistent with the believability of the other characters. His dominant presence means that the author’s attempts to shift to events of emotional gravity are unsuccessful, because the reader is always suspicious that they shouldn’t take things too seriously.
All of which results in a novel that is unengaging and a bit of a chore to get through. I can see why critics might like it – it’s certainly different and the prose is accomplished. But little things like plot are well-worn because they are fundamental to good stories, and any novel that is too clever to include the fundamentals is too clever for me.