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Zoo Time - review

Phallic preoccupations.

Zoo Time
Howard Jacobson
Bloomsbury, 384pp, £18.99

When D H Lawrence’s short story collection England, My England was first reviewed in the US in 1922, a critic for the New York Tribune hailed Lawrence as a genius – an “acci­dental” genius – but added, “Of course, I shall attempt no defence of Lawrence’s phallic preoccupation.” It was simply a given: “Some novelists are preoccupied with real estate; some with their critics; some with the future of virginity in America; and Lawrence with the war of all three sexes.” 

The protagonist of Howard Jacobson’s latest book, Zoo Time, is a novelist preoccupied with his phallus – as well as with D H Lawrence. And Henry Miller and Norman Mailer and J P Donleavy and any other novelist famed for his phallic preoccupation, although he also has an endearing soft spot for Mrs Gaskell. As it happens, he is also preoccupied with real estate, his critics and the war of at least two of the sexes; he offers no thoughts on the third sex or the future of virginity in America but one imagines that his thoughts on those subjects would be as pungent as his thoughts on all the others.

Guy Ableman, whose name suggests he’s meant to be an Everyman and whose abilities are questioned, aggressively, from the book’s opening pages, is losing his readers: because all writers are losing their readers, because the book is disintegrating into “Unbooks” (an app that lets you read an entire book at the bus stop) and because publishers are blowing their brains out. His fear is not simply for books tout court, however: Ableman is especially concerned with the fate of the priapic novel, which he suspects is being sanitised out of existence by a society afraid to let a little Rabelais into their reading. Or rather to let a little Rabelais out: “Did I have what it took to unbuckle against the forces of the great god Nice and let it all hang out?”

Ableman’s first novel, Who Gives a Monkey’s? (“An elegantly profane novel, told from the point of view of a young and idealistic woman zookeeper – hence its lingering interest to women’s reading groups, who found less not to identify with in it than in my later work”), had made “a bit of a splash” 13 years before. He continued to write bawdy comic novels about phallic preoccupation and achieved a moderate success, until “expectations of the book had changed. In a word, there were none.” Cue a series of entertaining tirades about the state of literature in society today: “Where did my oeuvre go? My question was a general one: every novelist in the country capable of writing sentences with conditional clauses in them was asking it.” “Mailer was dead, Bellow was dead, Updike was dead. Was it having to spell their names in Borders that had killed them? And now Borders itself was barely breathing.” “We were all busy wondering where readers had gone – there was even going to be a panel discussion of that very subject at the festival that evening; it was sold out.”

Ableman’s other problems are less general. He has two and, because he is preoccupied by them, they become the reader’s problems as well. The first is that he wants to sleep with his mother-in-law. Let me rephrase that, for Ableman would heap scabrous contempt upon so pusillanimous a euphemism. Ableman wants to fuck his mother-in-law. He doesn’t want to do anything less indecorous: he is as titillated by how much his desire shocks him as he is by the woman in question. We’ll return to this problem in a moment. His other problem is bigger and it is a familiar problem to any of us who have spent much time reading novels about phallic preoccupation.

The funny thing about priapic novels about priapic novelists is that they always seem to be terrified that the orgy is over and no one is writing phallic novels any more. No one except Howard Jacobson – and Adam Thirlwell and Craig Raine and Walter Mosley and Nick Cave and the Great God Priapus himself, Philip Roth, who was busily engaged, the last time I checked, in writing novels featuring ageing priapic novelists who convert lesbians to rampant if temporary heterosexuality with the aid of enormous, green dildos.

The phallus is a semi-universal symbol for several reasons, one of which is that some male writers can’t seem to resist trying to stick it everywhere they can. For it is a truth universally acknowledged by narrators of phallically preoccupied novels that the only thing that preoccupies them more than their phalluses is themselves: they are inseparable, after all. Ableman seems to think that we will be disarmed by his self-deprecating admission of self-absorption: “A writer such as I am feels he’s been away from the first person for too long if a third-person narrative goes on for more than two paragraphs, never mind a chapter. He, him, his . . . Why bother when such words as I, me, mine exist?”

One’s enjoyment of Zoo Time will depend quite a lot on how amusing one finds such self-deceptive narcissism and the game of waiting for that narcissism to be exposed. Ableman is what – if I were to use his own language – I would call a solipsistic, self-pitying prick. But that is Jacobson’s joke, not mine: Ableman will learn all of the ways in which he is not an able man and he will suffer a certain amount of comic comeuppance when the free will of others overturns his fantasies and redefines his fate. The other factor that will determine a reader’s enjoyment of Zoo Time is how transgressive, or how titillating, or how amusing, “he stroke she” (the characteristic double entendre that Ableman uses to indicate the general reader) finds the idea of a man preoccupied by his phallus and by his mother-in-law, and by finding the right zeugma that will yoke the two together.

This is a considerably less ambitious novel – intellectually, philosophically, emotionally, aesthetically – than Jacobson’s Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question: in every sense a less demanding read, it asks easier questions and offers easier answers. But it does not fail to offer Jacobson’s trademark pleasures, his wit, his energy, his love of words – and some will add his self-deprecating priapic jokes to this list. By the end, the jokes have been pushed aside for a few acutely observed insights that go some way towards compensating for keeping us stuck so long in the dim world of Ableman’s wilful blindness.

At one point, Ableman has a discussion with an older writer “about the place of smut in literature: how much sex is too much sex?” “However much you don’t want to read about,” Ableman replies. “But I don’t want to read about any,” says the older writer. I sympathise, as it happens, and comedy works analogously. Zoo Time is less troubling than The Finkler Question and if it struck me as less funny, it is also true that humour is as subjective as sexual pleasure. Certainly people who like this kind of thing will find throughout Zoo Time an exemplary instance of the kind of thing they like. And by the novel’s end, Jacobson has liberated us from Ableman’s limited vanity fair back into a broader sense of la comédie humaine, which redeems the novel while leaving Ableman, happily, unredeemed – and happily unredeemed.

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide