Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

I was expecting great things from this novel by British writer Howard Jacobson, not only because it had won the Booker Prize this past year but because it was heralded as one of the few genuinely comic novels to win that award. I love comic novels. And I love to see them get their due when it comes to big prizes and international recognition. It doesn’t happen often enough.

Unfortunately, The Finkler Question disappoints in almost every way imaginable. Is it possible that a comic novel could be so uniformly unfunny? There were certainly moments of levity in this otherwise dark and pessimistic tale, but I guess the reason I never bought into the jokes is because I never bought into the novel as a whole – the characters, the premise or the various Jewish-related themes it reaches for.

The Finkler Question tells the story of Julian Treslove and his friendship with two Jewish men in London who have recently become widowers – Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik. The three men share a lugubrious evening discussing love and death and what it means to lose a wife; and on his way home from the gathering, Treslove is mugged – improbably, by a woman. As she’s forcing him against a glass window and cleaning out his pockets, the woman mutters something at Treslove that he doesn’t quite catch. At first he thinks she said “You, Jules” – a pet name his mother used to call him. But eventually he begins to think that what she really said was “You Jew!” – a case of mistaken identity (Treslove is a Gentile) and an anti-Semitic attack all rolled into one.

It’s bad enough that Treslove’s ruminations about the attack – that he was manhandled by a woman, that he’s confused over what she said to him, and that someone could mistake him for a Jew – go on and on and ON for several overwritten pages. But what’s worse is that this attack precipitates a premise to the story that is so ludicrous, so far-fetched that I felt the need to put the book down lest I toss across the room. (Don’t get me wrong: I have no beef with absurd premises per se, provided they exist believably within the world of the novel. But this is The Finkler Question’s biggest problem: its absurd premise cannot do this because the world of the novel does not exist.) Predictably, Treslove uses the attack as an excuse to adopt and analyze a Jewish identity that he doesn’t even possess. He begins to see his friend Sam Finkler as the embodiment of Jewishness, and thus begins referring to all Jews as Finklers. (Hence the title of the book.)

Meanwhile, Finkler and Libor assume roles upon a kind of quasi-political spectrum: Finkler joins something called the ASHamed Jews, a group that derides the existence of Israel; Libor, in kind, comes to represent a more conservative vision of Judaism, though he’s unwilling to help a woman whose grandson was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. It also comes to light that Treslove once had an affair with Finkler’s diseased wife. And he also begins a relationship with another “Jewess”, the mysterious and alluring Hepzibah.

I didn’t believe any of it for a second. I could tell there was something profoundly wrong with this novel right from the beginning. The book never seems to settle into a single scene, into a clear-cut time and place – it hops around aimlessly from past to present, from moments of immediacy to ones of pure hypothesis. For the first third of the book, the narrative never finds a comfortable place to sit. Then you begin to realize why. You start to see that this is not an organic story arising naturally out of itself. This is a narrative intended to make massive, multifarious commentaries on contemporary Jewishness – on traditions, religion, the state of Israel, the Palestinian question – and each and every character is merely a prop used toward those aims. No one is a real flesh and blood person; everyone in the text is meant to represent something.

No wonder the humour falls flat. No wonder you find yourself lost in the amateurish maze that passes for Treslove’s inner world. Here’s a man who is 49 years old, and yet he comes to the whole idea of Jews with a kind of childish idiocy – to the point of lending all Jews an infantile sobriquet.

It doesn’t make sense. It wouldn’t make sense in the real world, and it doesn’t even make sense in the half-cocked, poorly constructed world of Jacobson’s novel. And trust me, it isn’t funny. If you’re looking for a comic novel that won the Booker, I’d avoid The Finkler Question. Go check out Vernon God Little instead. Now that novel busted me up.


  1. I can't agree- I believe it makes perfect sense. Finkler sits in a restaurant and wonders how one Jew can look around the room and easily identify other Jews, never having seen them before. It's simply a cultural thing. I also can do it - I'm Jewish. In the 70's and 80's, my husband, a practicing physician was able to look around a room and spot out of a large dining area, another M.D. Is it a sixth sense?- I don't think so, - merely a cultural thing. I'm sure, as a writer, you may have that same "sixth sense" when it comes to identifying someone in your field, yet a perfect stranger. I loved the book!!!!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. Perhaps you're right, that it is a cultural thing. I guess as a reviewer I'm always looking for contrivances and whether the author has earned them. In this book, I felt Jacobson hadn't - maybe I would have felt differently if I shared the same background, but this doesn't really bode well for the universality of literature. But I'm glad you got as much out of it as you did. And clearly you're not alone, as the Booker jury found this text worthy of the award.

    All the best,