There used to be a composer — there still is, come to think of it — who delighted in playing one note. La Monte Young wrote brass pieces where tuba players almost passed out blowing far longer than a set of human lungs could manage, or he and his wife would sing one note until they got tired of it. But he branched out with other instruments, too: He threw gravel against the side of a garage, and one storied afternoon at a private concert, he brushed a string bean against a pane of glass until a member of the audience leapt from his chair and cried out, “All right, La Monte, you win.”
Causing agony was exactly what La Monte wished for, of course. To him it was high art, and reading Howard Jacobson’s novel “Zoo Story,” I thought the narrator, Guy Ableman, subscribed to much the same philosophy: “I was a novelist,” he tells us. “I didn’t want an explanation, I wanted a spiralling narrative of uncertainty, nothing ever known for sure, the story going on for ever. . . . A mystery capable of being solved isn’t what I call a mystery.”
But nothing could be less mysterious than Ableman’s life. He lives in London with his wife, Vanessa, and her mother, Poppy. He’s in love with both of them. It’s a difficult situation because his wife withholds sex, groans regularly about the novel she should be writing but isn’t, and sneers at Guy’s self-absorption. Guy dreams about getting Poppy into bed, but outside of one unsatisfactory kiss while they’re on vacation in Western Australia, he never gets past first base with her. Guy thinks this situation is intrinsically interesting, but it’s about as compelling as a string bean on a pane of glass. (For one thing, Vanessa only says mean, castrating things to him, and Poppy says little more than “Go!” out there in Australia. We’re told repeatedly, though, that both women have breasts that come up under their chins.)
Although Jacobson won the Booker Prize two years ago for “The Finkler Question,” Guy laments that literature written by old white guys is dead. After his fourth novel, he feels that he is disappearing, too, but he labors on, lusting after his wife, dreaming of his mother-in-law: “Take my mother-in-law — I just have. It was the word ‘just’ I found hard to resist. The idea of a comedian coming out to entertain his audience with the smell of his mother-in-law still on him. It was a disgusting concept which confirmed Vanessa’s view that I was a disgusting person.”
Indeed, Ableman tries very hard to be a disgusting person and succeeds. He’s a marvel of an antihero, a sniveling, whining, repetitive, garrulous, smarmy, weaselly creep. He longs for the old days of Paris in the ’50s, of Maurice Girodias and the Olympia Press and all those banned books of old: “Heady days, these, for fiction, with novelists offending all and sundry, words having to be hidden from the authorities, and no one quite the person he said he was. Who was Francis Lengel, author of White Thighs? Alexander Trocchi, who else?” Ableman then goes on to mention every pornographer he can think of, but in truth, he’s nothing like those glorious, rowdy ’50s guys. He dreams of producing an orgasm with his nose or putting his hands on his mother-in-law’s leg, but nothing, none of his projects, including writing, ever gets done.
Partly, “Zoo Time” is meant to be a novel about writing, and once Ableman has made it clear that he thinks of himself as a chimp with a set of genitals that won’t behave, he gives us a series of lectures on character, plot, point of view, and mentions — several times — his mother-in-law playing the cello naked. He devotes chapters to fact checkers, the unreliable narrator, the “debut” novel, the “breakthrough” novel and so forth. Then he goes back to Vanessa and Poppy again.
As the novel staggers wearily along, he throws in cameos of Guy’s bisexual brother, who may or may not have a brain tumor, and his parents, who suffer from dementia and don’t know who he is.
The last 70 pages or so are when things start to happen. A rudimentary plot finally rises up from the ooze: A couple of new characters appear, and — apart from a long essay on what it means to be Jewish — the novel opens its eyes, takes a breath and comes to life. But Ableman (or Jacobson) has done such a good job at being awful that it’s too late.
Readers hate to be swindled. I have a feeling most of them will get up and leave the room long before the end of “Zoo Time.”
All right, Howard, you win!
But, of course, he hasn’t.
See reviews books regularly for The Washington Post.
By Howard Jacobson
Bloomsbury. 376 pp. $26