Let’s Talk Books – “J: A Novel” by Howard Jacobson

My free copy of “J” alongside my free highlighter from renting textbooks in college.

Date Published: October 14, 2014
Category: Dystopian, Fiction, World Literature
Rating: 3.5/5

This is my first review of 2016 and that should not be interpreted as a positive thing. I really wanted to like this book a lot more and it’s unfortunate that the drawbacks outweighed the potential. In previous posts I think I explained what my ideal genres are and when selecting my next book, “J” was definitely out of my comfort zone. As far as dystopian novels, I have not gone beyond 1984 and Brave New World. Despite being forced to read those in high school, I have the highest regard for them nonetheless. After attempting to dive back in with The Hunger Games and running away directly into the films, I decided to give Jacobson a clean slate. In an effort to not make this a completely negative view, I would like to start with what I feel are the positives.

I am not one to mark/highlight anything in any of my books but this novel has so many great one-liners that I couldn’t help it. I say one-liners because there were times when I found myself highlighting just a fragment of a sentence or a completely paragraph. It’s difficult to ignore the power of the characters’ dialogue with lines such as “Depression can do that. It can make you indifferent to your surroundings, uninterested in yourself let alone other people.” (Jacobson, 144) My whole review could literally just continue with everything I highlighted as intriguing, witty, or heart-wrenching but I digress.

At the heart of this story is the relationship between Ailinn and Kevern. Initially, I could not fathom what had brought these two together or kept them together for that matter. It was not until after their trip out of town, did I really get a sense of development in their relationship. With secrets swirling on both ends, their bleak view on life/the world seemed to be the glue holding them together.

Despite the vague nature of the “situation” the characters are in, I thought there was a strong sense of place. Especially when comparing Port/Luxor/Necropolis/etc., it was clear where each social class resided. There was a very gray nature to each area that was felt throughout the text.

If I listed all of my quotes, the “positive” section would be significantly longer but what I’ve said so far is all I have as justification for the 3.5 rating. As for the “cons” if you will, I will begin with there are too many shifts in point of view. I read many novels that toss between characters in a relationship in order to get a complete picture of their dynamic but this tactic fails when it flips beyond 2 individuals. I spent a good amount of time re-reading chapters because I had no idea who was talking. Is it Ailinn, Kevern, Ferdie, Gutkind, Kroplik, Everett, Rebecca, or Esme? Kroplik’s cat could have been speaking for an entire book and I probably wouldn’t have known the difference. It was a pinball machine approach to point of view which I could not keep track of.

Speaking of retention, the specific language was too dense for my taste. I am all for somber over-analytical spirals but when it takes half a chapter of lost letters to establish one factoid for a character’s backstory, that’s where you lose me. I felt like I was trudging through rambles for the majority of my reading which is why it took my so long to finish. I was also turned off by the fact that every conflict in the novel was treated with the same amount of detail as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. Hinting clearly at the violent nature of things but only remaining at the surface. Sprinkle in a few thousand Moby Dick references and that was what pushed me over the edge. I am not a huge fan of Moby Dick. That’s phrasing it lightly, I hated having to read it in high school and again in college. There is a vast amount of people who enjoy the imagery and I completely respect that, but I am not one of those people. The mere mention of Ahab set me boiling and the fact that it was such a prominent component of Ailinn drove me insane. It’s not that the references were misplaced, it just does not do anything constructive for me.

With all of this leisurely stroll type of writing, it was incredibly surprising and disappointing how rushed the end was. After building up practically every crevice of Kevern and Ailinn, it jumps to last page. It seemed like right when I was “into” everything that was happening, someone forcefully removed the plug and everything went dark.

Would I recommend reading this book? It really depends on what your preferences are. Death is around every corner in more ways than one and if you don’t mind taking the scenic route, I say give it a go. I cannot guarantee that you will find the trip worth it but remember that there are “…some questions you couldn’t begin to mold from the black chaos of ignorance, for fear of what definition would bring.” (Jacobson, 196)


I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


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