Novel of the week

Who's Sorry Now?

Howard Jacobson <em>Cape, 326pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0224062867

Those who saw Howard Jacobson's South Bank Show special a few weeks ago - a putative celebration of what makes the novel vital - were treated to a wonderful moment near the end. Jacobson's self-important declaration that he writes fiction in the service of truth alarmed the novelists Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens. While Bainbridge conceded that "he has a point", Rubens appeared increasingly concerned. Having heard out the garrulous cultural commentator, she surmised: "Howard, you have some very heavy baggage."

That baggage is all too apparent in his latest novel, Who's Sorry Now? Adept at knocking out quirky serio-comic narratives and thinly disguised self-portraits, Jacobson now turns to sex and infidelity. (His previous, more enjoyable, but similarly heavy-handed novel, The Mighty Walzer, dealt with the serious subject of table tennis, after all.)

Marvin Kreitman, an "archivist of himself", is the latest half-cretin to disgrace a Jacobson novel. With his "nostalgic affection for many of the old discredited categories of masculinist swagger", Kreitman is in love with five women, his lucky wife among them, and we follow the bed-swerving bravado of this "serial faller-in-love". What's more, he's homophobic, he sells purses for a living, he is slightly bookish and, if you haven't yet guessed, not at all likeable. This is how Jacobson wants it, because he is aiming for the educated lechery of a Rabelais, but what we get instead is the studied licentiousness of Malcolm Bradbury or David Lodge.

As Kreitman's antics continue, and the mildly interested reader presses on in the hope of elucidation, Jacobson begins to lose his way. Frequently, the fiction thins out and is replaced by a pseudo-essayistic prose that, in one exemplary sentence, manages to mention 19th-century English radicalism, utilitarianism and moral chartism. Nice work if you can get it, I'm sure. But this exhibitionist erudition does not quite come off.

Jacobson simply has too many ideas. Or rather, he tries to include too many of them. Before he has successfully carried through a scene or sentence, he is adding asides and other aspects, clause upon clause, until the weary reader begins to suspect that the author is involved in a protracted conversation with his own ego. Worse still, he is clearly enjoying himself.

Elsewhere, when he struggles to animate his story, he resorts to lifestyle journalism: on London restaurants, the London Eye, Soho, London traffic, and again, er, London. As you would expect, we also get some sexual and social politics, a few rants (kids dying of "the culture of the council estate") and an ongoing wager between seriousness and trash. He is better on the decline of romantic involvement - from love to fondness to consideration to pity - as he neatly puts it, and there are some good scenes here, but they are seldom enough.

And when you consider the thin dialogue, the orgy of under-developed characters (their sexual appetites vastly exceeding any other distinguishing features), you begin to see clearly how heavy the baggage, how light the tale.

This article first appeared in the 22 April 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Who <I>really</I> downed the twin towers?