Friday, January 28, 2011
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
In Howard Jacobson's Man Booker Prize winning novel sad-sack goy Julian Treslove is mistaken for a Jew when he is mugged in the street, or so he thinks. Making matters worse his assailant is a woman. In one fell swoop his sexual and ethnic identity (which is to say his entire identity) have been stolen from him. A personal crisis ensues and Treslove spends most of the rest of the novel ruminating and anguishing about, well, sex and identity. Treslove desperately wants to be Jewish. Why? I'm not quite sure. It may have something to do with the fact that his two closest friends are Jewish, his former teacher Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler, an old school chum and now a renowned philosopher and media personality. But it's not just their Jewishness Treslove envies, it's their losses. Sevcik and Finkler have both recently become widowers. The combination of love, loss and Judaism are irresistible to Treslove who, aside from being a bore, is an incurable romantic. One more thing Treslove instinctively can't resist about Jews is their penchant for self-hatred. Finkler founds an organization called ASHamed Jews to take a public stand against Israel's actions in Gaza (among a host of other amorphous things Jews have to be ashamed of). Then Treslove becomes fascinated and follows the internet blog of a Jew trying to grow (or more accurately 'stretch') his foreskin back. Self-hatred is something Treslove comes by honestly, and justifiably, having failed repeatedly as a lover and as a father to two sons by different women. He falls in love with the unlikely-named Hephzibah, Libor's great-great niece, a large woman who appears to embody in every way the Jewishness that Treslove craves. He reads a Yiddish dictionary to acquire Jewish idiom in his vocabulary, and aides Hephizbah with the creation of a new museum of Anglo-Jewish life (not a Holocaust museum.) Still (self) acceptance eludes him. This is all intended as ironic, of course, the non-Jew feeling marginalized from history's most marginalized people. I've been a Jacobson fan for a while. I really enjoyed Kalooki Nights, and loved The Mighty Walzer. Those novels were energetic and deftly-written - serious but with a light touch - in a way that The Finkler Question simply isn't. Finkler feels like a performance. The author wanting to say a lot about the state of being Jewish these days. The novel is comprised almost entirely of characters opining, and the humour is heady and forced. But the main problem is that the novel is missing a solid, empathetic core; a central character for whom the reader can genuinely care, as Walzer had Oliver, and Kalooki had Max Glickman. Julian Treslove is a pathetic, self-obsessed drip, a loser who overthinks and spins his wheels in place. There's little that's enjoyable, or particularly funny (or excusable) about watching him sink deeper and deeper into the mire of his own making. As an exposition on the modern Jewish psyche, which it is undoubtedly intended to be, The Finkler Question is tiresome and dreary. As a meditation on friendship it is unrelentingly melancholic. Only a brief glimpse of Jacobson's storytelling brilliance is in evidence when near the very end of the novel he briefly touchingly describes the actual deaths of Libor's and Finkler's wives in successive chapters. The contrast is achingly revealing about their respective marriages, relationships and lives. It's also telling that these sections, the most authentically and beautifully wrtten in the novel, were not about Treslove. Still, I'm thrilled the novel won the Man Booker. Hopefully, it will bring more attention to Jacobson's superior earlier novels. I have no doubt that the award jury intended it that way.