Howard Jacobson's novel-before-last, Kalooki Nights, was a wonderful surprise - a torrential comedy of ideas and impressions set in Manchester in the 1950s and London in the present day, concerned with the psychic and psychosexual effect of the pogroms and death camps on English Jews, and constructed from passages of exact and agile prose. His new novel, though by no means a negligible work, discomforts the reader with uncertain descriptions, callous sarcasms and failed gags. Strange turns are likely, perhaps inevitable, in the career of any hard-working novelist, but rarely do they defy explanation.
Julian Treslove, a 49-year-old bachelor, cowardly and blandly good-looking, envies the suffering (tribal and historical, personal and recent) of his Jewish widower friends: 90-year-old Libor Sevick, one-time intimate to the stars, and his school chum Sam Finkler, a higher guru of the de Botton stripe. Wandering late at night, Treslove is mugged by a woman, but he believes the attack to be racially rather than sexually motivated, a case of mistaken ethnic identity. Treslove becomes interested in Jewish teachings and customs, the irony being that he is spurred in this direction only by an experience of anti-Semitic violence.
Jacobson has occasionally been treated as a one-subject writer, but his accomplishment has been to discover the varied sources of inerest in the lives of English Jews. The Finkler Question is characterised by his structuring skill and unsimplifying intelligence - this time picking through the connections and differences, hardly unremarked but given fresh treatment here, between vicariousness and parasitism, and between Jewishness, Judaism and Zionism. Even in a strained performance, Jacobson succeeds in generating smart conceits, the best of these - involving a Jew who goes to bed with a Holocaust denier - saved until the end.
Along the way, there is a great deal of awkwardness, some of it quite imaginative. A ten-word sentence contains both "even" and "eyes", as if to ensure a clash with the final word, “either", whichever way you pronounce it.
Jacobson's syntax is industriously wayward. Why does he rely so often on the rhetorical question? Doesn't it just smack of complacency? He is also attached to the glib thrill of the one-sentence paragraph ("Or did he?"). And the verbless sentence. The effect tends to be curt, as in this background check on Libor's depressed dinner date: "Two years before, her boyfriend Hugh had killed himself. Thrown himself under a bus while she was waiting for him to collect her. At the Aldwych." Chaotic grammar - or is it slack punctuation? - works to undercut the potential impact of Libor inspecting his late wife's clothes: "There they hung, rail after rail of them, the narrative of their life together, her lean and hungry social sharpness, his pride in her appearance, the heads that turned when they entered a room, she like a weapon at his side."
The novel has a mixture of brashness and imprecision that threatens to be irritating and soon is. Finkler wanders around a museum of Anglo-Jewish culture: "He thought he caught sight of a photograph of Sir Isaiah Ber-lin and Frankie Vaughan. Not together." That two-word sentence forms the punchline, but its implication is at odds with the singular "photograph".
The book is on similarly intimate terms with tautology: "mainly what he saw was humanity trapped in conviction, like rats in rat traps"; Libor's wife "never doubted his fidelity because she was so secure in it". Throughout the novel, Jacobson takes leave of sense, but to no purpose.
His tendency towards bald narrative declaration and thinly dramatised human wisdom brings to mind Woody Allen's pastiche of Philip Roth. "Rifkin led a fragmented, disjointed existence. He had long ago come to this conclusion: all people know the same thing. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it." The writing here is more intricate and smoother, but there is a similar desire to know the characters inside out: "Whatever Sam Finkler wanted, his effect on Julian Treslove was always to put him out of sorts and make him feel excluded from something. And false to a self he wasn't sure he had."
This is talk too fast and straight for page 26 of a 300-page novel. While the novel's slips - and typos - may be forgiven as the product of haste, its meticulous cynicism is more troubling. We learn early on that Treslove confuses his sons' names, but later we are told that "he didn't know either of his sons from Adam", a larger failure and meaner detail. A similar spirit motivates this bizarre slur against the NHS: "He had a private doctor . . . which meant he was able to get an appointment that afternoon instead of the following month by which time the pain would have subsided or
he would be dead."
Jacobson's conception of his characters narrows as the novel progresses. When Libor mentions to Finkler that fame is not the only yardstick of success, the author writes: "He paused to ponder Libor's words. Other yardsticks, other yardsticks . . . But couldn't think of any."
The Finkler Question
Bloomsbury, 320pp, £18.99
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer.