Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Few Sour Notes On Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question


Oy vey!

I finally finished reading Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which is one of those books I read very slowly over a very long period of time, at most 15 pages at a time, save for tonight when I read about 40 of its last pages just to finish. I didn't read it slowly in order to savor it or to pause meditatively over its parts. That's just the way I happened to read it for whatever the reason. 

Basically I didn't like it and one reason is that I can't remember the last time I was so irritated by, impatient with, frustrated by, felt exasperated dislike for, a main character. Here, the utterly hapless protagonist, if he can be called that, there's so little that goes on, Julian Treslove, obsesses over wanting to be a Jew. (Don't ask: it's in this book a ludicrous premise.) 

He's the personification of an obsessiveness that stops short of mental illness. He obsesses over who he is, over every little thing that happens to him--nothing big does--over his friendships, his relationships with women. He embodies the paradox of the kind of person who's so deeply and endlessly preoccupied with own puniness, failures, weaknesses and limitations that he's finally and essentially irritatingly self centered. He's self abnegation as self assertion. 

That one reason blends into another one: I'd argue Jacobson invests himself in Treslove's unending interiority. Rumination, at least in one of its meanings, isn't a good thing. It's obsessive thinking. As a mode of anxiety it's compulsively going over and over the sources of distress. And as Treslove does little but ruminate, so Jacobson fancies that rumination an apt means of his, Jacobson's, questioning, answering, observing, discussing, exploring, disputing, presenting, joking about, explaining, talking about, satirizing, hectoring, all endlessly to an obnoxious fault, Jewishness in all its ostensible forms, manners and habits. 

What Jacobson through Treslove has to say about the nature of Jewishness is typically so petty, so absurdly binary, so trivial, so essentialist, so over the top, so trite, so exaggerated, all in all so foolish, that it made me think as I was reading that "This guy, Jacobson, isn't really very smart after all, that no one but some fool who lives largely in his own pointy head could seriously think and write these things." 

I'd argue that for Jacobson, Treslove isn't a detached fictional creation of a certain type of man. I'd argue, rather, that while clearly Treslove isn't an autobiographical character, Jacobson projects much of his own sensibility into him. 

Now The Finkler Question, which by the book's terms means The Jewish Question, got a lot of good reviews and it won the 2010 Man Booker Prize. All that reviewing and prize winning glory made me wonder if my breaking up with the book was me and not it. 

I surmounted my wonder, however, and concluded it wasn't me, it was it. And so I was gratified to see that a high toned critic like James Wood felt somewhat the same way. So if anyone wants to get a more concrete and detailed sense of some of the causes of my disdain for this novel while reading a spritely and acute piece of book reviewing at the same time, I commend Wood's article on Jacobson's work.

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