By Howard Jacobson
Bloomsbury USA, 384 pages, $26
Just because most of us don’t fantasize continuously about ditching our wives for our mothers-in-law doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent premise for a novel. In fact, those very images my opening sentence elicits (and, likewise I’m sure, similar ones for fathers-in-law) are probably the reason Howard Jacobson chose it. After all, “The Act of Love” (the novel prior to 2010’s disappointing but all-conquering “The Finkler Question”) was about a husband who decides that the eponymous and ultimate act of love is to give away his wife to another man.
This novel, Jacobson’s 12th, comes in the shadow of his Man Booker Prize win of 2010. Already a long way through the process of being written at that point, “Zoo Time” pulls no punches as a result of its author’s success. Told from the point of view of Guy Ableman — an out-of-favor author (“Zoo Time” opens with him stealing a paperback of one of his books from a used bookshop) who is self-pitying yet vituperative — the novel is an equal opportunity excoriation of pretty much everyone and everything in contemporary publishing.
Within “publishing,” Jacobson includes writers and readers. You don’t have to like Ableman to enjoy this coruscating comic novel. In fact it’s almost impossible to like Ableman, and nearly as hard not to revel in the book’s wholesale and gleeful destruction of the holy cows of bookmaking. Obviously, the need to identify with the protagonist is quickly dispensed with, but — as Ableman takes us from the theft of his first book to the production of his next one (via a trip around Australia and the wholesale reinvention of British publishing) — some unholy amalgam of author and protagonist goes on to skewer reading groups, book festivals, agents, politically correct critics, publishers, authors and authors’ families.
Jacobson begins by ruthlessly assassinating the denizens of old school publishing. First he kills off a literary agent on a near-suicidal trek (“My first agent — Quinton O’Malley — went missing on the Hindu Kush with the manuscript of my second novel in his backpack. His body was never recovered, though pages of my manuscript continued to be found scattered over a wide area for years…”), then a publisher actually commits suicide (“Things had not been going well… for Merton Flak who, following a drunken lunch in my company — I had been the one doing the drinking — went back to his office and shot himself in the mouth.”).