By Ron Charles
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; C01
THE FINKLER QUESTION
By Howard Jacobson
Bloomsbury. 307 pp. Paperback, $15
Howard Jacobson's comedy about anti-Semitism, "The Finkler Question," won the $79,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction in London Tuesday, beating "Parrot & Olivier in America," by two-time winner Peter Carey, and Emma Donoghue's popular "Room." Jacobson, 68, who remains far better known in his native England than in this country, has been a prolific writer of comic novels, mostly about Jews and Jewish identity, since 1983. Several have landed on the Booker long list.
That Jacobson could write a comedy about anti-Semitism isn't shocking nowadays. A springy piece of barbed wire runs from Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" through Mel Brooks's "The Producers," TV's "Hogan's Heroes," Sarah Silverman's Nazi riffs and all the way to Tova Reich's outrageous satire "My Holocaust," which dared to tweak Elie Wiesel and the schlocky aspect of the "never forget" industry.
Although there is a plot, "The Finkler Question" is really a series of tragicomic meditations on one of humanity's most tenacious expressions of malice, which I realize sounds about as much fun as sitting shiva, but Jacobson's unpredictable wit is more likely to clobber you than his pathos. In these pages, he's refined the funny shtick of "Kalooki Nights" (2007) to produce a more cerebral comedy about the bizarre metastasis of anti-Semitism and the exhausting complications of Zionism.
So yes, it's witty, but is it good for the Jews?
I'll leave that to Rick Sanchez, but no other book has given me such a clear sense of the benevolent disguises that anti-Jewish sentiments can wear. And no one wears them more attractively than Julian Treslove, the handsome, middle-aged gentile at the center of "The Finkler Question." Chronically anxious and poisonously romantic, Julian works as a celebrity double. He "didn't look like anybody famous in particular," Jacobson admits, but he "looked like many famous people in general, and so was in demand if not by virtue of verisimilitude, at least by virtue of versatility." That chameleon-like nature, along with his favorite fantasy of a lover dying poetically in his arms, gives some idea of the grasping, blood-sucking quality of this pleasant, lonely man, "whose life had been one absurd disgrace after another."
The story opens with a tiny burst of action -- the only real action you'll get in this ruminative novel. Julian is walking home from a pleasant dinner with two old Jewish friends who have recently lost their wives. Their grief, Jacobson notes, allows him to luxuriate vicariously in widowed reveries. As usual, Julian is imagining the calamities that could befall him -- a crane dashing out his brains, a terrorist opening fire, a road sign bruising his shin -- when suddenly he's mugged. By a woman. His injuries are minor, but while emptying his pockets, she mutters what sounds like "You Ju!" Julian is exhilarated.
That Chekhovian touch of absurdity adds some essential buoyancy to what can be an excessively brooding tale. Julian becomes obsessed with the mugger's obscure curse. "You Jules"? "You jewel"? "You Jew"? Could his assailant, his "muggerette," have been an anti-Semite lashing out at Julian's "essential Jewishness"? It's a conundrum that awakens his long-simmering envy of his two Jewish friends and makes him determined to be a Jew himself -- the ultimate celebrity identity to stretch over the husk of his soul. "He wondered about training to be a rabbi. . . . What about a lay rabbi?" Should he get circumcised? Should he read Maimonides?
One of his two Jewish friends is Libor, a retired celebrity reporter, still deeply shaken by the death of his wife and shocked by the predicament of surviving her. The other fresh widower is Sam Finkler, an old schoolmate, the first Jewish person Julian ever met, the prototype in his mind of all Jews -- thus "The Finkler Question." Finkler is confident and bold, a successful TV personality and the author of a series of pop philosophy books, such as "The Existentialist in the Kitchen" and "The Little Book of Household Stoicism."
"What Sam had," Jacobson writes, "was a sort of obliviousness to failure, a grandstanding cheek, which Treslove could only presume was part and parcel of the Finkler heritage. . . . Such confidence, such certainty of right. . . . They always had something you didn't, some verbal or theological reserve they could draw on, that would leave you stumped for a response." Desperately afraid of stereotyping Jews, Julian nonetheless luxuriates in all the classic caricatures, envying their legendary success, their history-dominating grief, even the flawless timing of their dismissive shrugs.
Jacobson is like a man playing with a knife who starts pretending to aim for our feet. When is he joking, when is he not? Even while we're trying to disentangle what's so disturbing about Julian's special regard for Jews, the book pursues (and belabors) another line of comedy, this one about self-loathing Jews. Finkler, always desperate for attention and a public platform, takes over a group called "ASHamed Jews," an anti-Zionist group that holds endless Talmudic meetings to hammer out the precise dimensions of its members' shame, the crucial distinctions that define "ashamed of being Jewish," being "ashamed as Jews" and being "Jewishly ashamed." And all this is woven through vituperative, sometimes hilarious, sometimes tedious arguments about Israeli exceptionalism.
Jacobson has stirred this pot before (and Philip Roth stirred it before him), but the novel's real depth develops slowly beneath the satire, as anti-Semitic attacks begin to filter into the story from around London and the world -- a boy blinded, a grave covered in swastikas, a man beaten: little echoes of the horror of the mid-20th century. "It's not Kristallnacht," Libor says with a shrug, but who knows what the next trigger will be? The great one-liners keep coming ("She dressed like a native of no place one could quite put a name to -- the People's Republic of Ethnigrad"), but the laughter starts to die in your throat as sorrow and fear accumulate on these pages like stones. "After a period of exceptional quiet," one character thinks, "anti-Semitism was becoming again what it had always been -- an escalator that never stopped, and which anyone could hop on at will."
There are certainly reasons to find this novel annoying. Chief among them, of course, is the tiresomeness of Julian's obsessive, if benevolent, racism. All but the most severely self-loathing Jews will grow weary of Jacobson's badgering parody of self-loathing Jews. And the plot frequently gives way to lectures, discussions and set pieces that could be read in almost any order.
On the other hand -- cue Yiddish accent -- "The Finkler Question" is often awfully funny, even while it roars its witty rage at the relentless, ever-fracturing insanity of anti-Semitism, which threatens to drive its victims a little crazy, too. This is, after all, a comedy that begins and ends in grief.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Post. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/RonCharles.