Thursday, October 27, 2011

the last book I read

The Very Model Of A Man by Howard Jacobson.

A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, they say. And this one has a beginning, all right: the Beginning Of All Things, which, according to some people anyway, was exactly 6014 years ago last Sunday.

Actually we don't quite start from the very beginning, as this isn't principally God's story, any more than it is Adam and Eve's, though they all feature at various points. This is the story of Cain, a more significant figure in human history (or at least this mythical version of it) than most people realise. Think about it: the first human to be born, rather than just poofed into existence out of some dust or a rib-bone, and therefore the first baby, the first child, the first teenager, all that stuff, as well as possibly the first person with a belly-button. And, of course, as you'll know if you were paying attention in bible study class, the first murderer.

It's not quite a straight rehash of the Book of Genesis, though - Adam and Eve aren't the innocent fig-leaf-clad nymphs of popular legend, but instead a pair of cantankerous middle-aged types, while God is barely competent to take charge of the planet without accidentally magicking stuff into existence left and right. Meanwhile Cain amuses himself thinking up names for stuff - parsley! gazelle! molybdenum! - and growing various amusing mutant plants. All is well until Eve bears another son - Abel, the apple of his parents' eyes, and the source of much inevitable fraternal (and, ultimately, fratricidal) tension and resentment.

These post-Edenic reminiscences are revealed to be a series of public performance-art-esque readings given by Cain in his new dwelling place, Babel. Yeah, that Babel. What he's been up to since fleeing the familial home isn't clear, but he's now set up in Babel and seems to be something of a local celebrity, as well as a focus for fear and superstition among the local seers and sages and entrail-readers.

Anyway, Cain's rambling recollections eventually build up to the climax we and his audience have been waiting for, the story of how he killed his brother. Having delivered himself of this, he feels it necessary to escape from other people, and from the ground which cried out and betrayed him after he killed his brother. So, what better way to do this than to build a ruddy great big tower? That can only go well.

The Very Model Of A Man could be said to mark a key mid-point in Howard Jacobson's literary career - following the rollicking comic novels Coming From Behind, Peeping Tom and Redback (the last of these published in 1986, six years before The Very Model Of A Man in 1992), and preceding a six-year gap in his output (prompted, some say, by the lukewarm critical reception it got). It's certainly the least obviously comic of the novels of his that I've read, though it does still contain some cherishable turns of phrase, and is (as all Jacobson's books are) liberally marinated in concentrated Jewishness, with the obligatory kvetching and pessimism.

Beyond the surface cleverness and the bold choice of subject matter it's hard to see the point of it, though: it's not as if there's any particular surprise in the climactic revelation about Abel's death; we all knew that was going to happen, and there isn't even the consolation of any spectacular chainsaw dismemberment or anything like that; Cain just punches him in the head a few times and he carks it. In Cain's defence, though, bear in mind that Abel is the first person in human history to die - had God made it clear that this was even possible? This is all pre-Ten Commandments, don't forget, with the "thou shalt not kill" and all that stuff. Are we sure that Cain knew the possible consequences of his actions? What the point of all the surrounding scenes set in Babel is isn't clear either, beyond establishing, given Cain's treatment of his native girlfriend Zilpah, that a few years contemplating the error of his ways hasn't made him a nicer person.

A geographical footnote, while I remember: the half-built ziggurat at Etemenanki that Cain is offered as the starting point for his tower is a real place, a few miles south of Baghdad, and is even marked as "Tower of Babel" on Google Maps. Nothing but a few lumps of rubble left now, though.

No doubt Woody Allen is heartily sick of people hankering after "the early, funny ones", but my favourite Jacobson books are the first three. The later ones like No More Mr. Nice Guy and The Mighty Walzer are fine, but don't have the manic comic energy of the earlier ones. And The Very Model Of A Man is probably best described as an interesting experiment with some good moments, but overall it feels like an overwrought attempt to write something "serious" and "significant". Peeping Tom is probably still the one I would recommend, overall, though I should point out that I haven't read the more recent ones like the 2010 Booker winner The Finkler Question.

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