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