A Book A Week Challenge – Week 24

I read an article only a few days ago with a premise that we humans might be socially programmed and discusses the consequences associated with it. (Sincere apologies for not being able to recollect the author).

This would essentially mean whatever you do as part of your social ecosystem, it is not you who is the hero of that story – Dwayne Johnson comically puts it in his latest release Central Intelligence, where he says “How can that be a possibility? You are the only one in it?”

Well, there might be others who control your social associations – if not in the means but to meet the ends. This is not the first time that this feature appeared in a dystopian novel – we read in “1984” and so we did in Well and Caché, But, what remarkably distinguishes Howard Jacobson’s 2014 Man Booker Shortlisted- novel “J” is its brilliant characterizations.


Book #: 24

Title: J” by Howard Jacobson

Pages: 326

Before you even jump into reading the contents of this book – there are three aspects that demand your immediate attention. First being, the title in itself and the second being, the catastrophic event that everyone refers to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT EVER HAPPENED and the final one is the “argument” it makes.

First: The title of the novel is “J” with two lines crossing horizontally. It is associated with the lead character Kevern Cohen’s gesture whenever he had to use the letter J. He puts two fingers across his lips every time he had to use a work with J – Joke, Jog, Jump, and so on. Anything with J. It comes as an instruction from his father who induced it into his subconscious memory – the gesture just followed. What does that even mean? – we never know at least within the book. But, it definitely had to with WHAT HAPPENED.

Second: WHAT HAPPENED is the term that is used to refer the catastrophe that the world had to surpass and the setting of this novel is sometime in future, after surviving the catastrophe. What is this catastrophe about? – is it a viral disease that infected many people, genocide involving specific race with the name starting J – we never know.

Third: “Argument” – Howard Jacobson starts the novel with an opening statement – a ceremonial argument. This is the essential bone this novel around which brilliantly written characters transform into flesh.

“After that, I will have no option but to eat myself”

As for the writing of this novel, it is a straight linear narration. Of course, the story around in time to provide us the necessary background of the characters and whatever happened during WHAT HAPPENED. As they say even in the extreme of conditions, the thing that survives is LOVE. Aillian’s mother adds some wisdom to it by saying “Love, Hatred, and Disgust- are the three emotions that cannot be inflamed”

The reading of this book couldn’t have come with a better timing as the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union- the future is filled with uncertainty and instability in Europe, as many predict, it could lead to a situation where the generations to come might refer to this event as “WHAT HAPPENED”. This is a straight forward question and reminds you a fact that despite this being a fiction novel – the reality is not far away.

This novel features some of the best memorable characters ever written – each and every character is supported with a detailed backstory as to how they lead up into the post-apocalyptic world that the story is set up in.

Kevern and Aillian are the lead characters who fall for each other – with distinguished characteristics. Kevern might come across as a bold, strong willed individual whose world comes shattering as he opens the letters box from his father. Aillian is a feebly built, sensitive woman grown in an orphanage with vulnerabilities all around her. Both fall in love – but it is not the destiny that decided it but someone drove that and she bears a child that is meant to bring “Normal Opposite” to the world that is wiped off disagreement.

Then there is Detective Inspector Gutkind, Historian and Barber Densdell Kroplik, Ferdinand Moskowitz, Lowenna Morgensten, Rebecca and many more characters that stay with you even after days you finish the book but my personal favorite is – Esme Nassbaum. This is one of the brilliantly written characters and would stay for a long time in my memory. The interesting aspect of the book is it takes off with amazingly attractive male characters- the flow, the narration is all centered around males with distinguished attributes – except for Aillin who struggles to fit into her identity in this novel. Come the second half, the female characters are written in a way that you would be eager to know more about them – forget the lead Kevern, forget the murder of Gutkind, you will stay amazed with these female characterizations.

Overall, “J” by Howard Jacobson can as well be the British dystopian novel of our time as described by John Burnside in his Guardian Review. For me, this would be remembered as a novel that I could use as a reference material for writing characters if I ever chose to write a book of my own.

Watch his talk with Al Senter during Edinburgh International Book Festival here.


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