Set in the future — a world where the past is a dangerous country, not to be talked about or visited — J is a love story of incomparable strangeness, both tender and terrifying.
Two people fall in love, not yet knowing where they have come from or where they are going. Kevern doesn’t know why his father always drew two fingers across his lips when he said a word starting with a J. It wasn’t then, and isn’t now, the time or place to be asking questions. Ailinn too has grown up in the dark about who she was or where she came from. On their first date Kevern kisses the bruises under her eyes. He doesn’t ask who hurt her. Brutality has grown commonplace. They aren’t sure if they have fallen in love of their own accord, or whether they’ve been pushed into each other’s arms. But who would have pushed them, and why?
Hanging over the lives of all the characters in this novel is a momentous catastrophe — a past event shrouded in suspicion, denial and apology, now referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.
J is a novel to be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, thought-provoking and life-changing. It is like no other novel that Howard Jacobson has written.
HOWARD JACOBSON won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse award in 2000 for The Mighty Walzer and then again in 2013 for Zoo Time. In 2010 he won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question. He has written thirteen novels and five works of non-fiction.
To Jenny — here, now, always
The Wolf and the Tarantula
A GREY WOLF fell into conversation with a tarantula. ‘I love the chase,’ the grey wolf said. ‘Myself,’ said the tarantula, ‘I like to sit here and wait for my prey to come to me.’ ‘Don’t you find that lonely?’ the wolf asked. ‘I could as soon ask you,’ the tarantula replied, ‘how it is that you don’t get sick of taking your wife and kids along on every hunt.’ ‘I am by temperament a family man,’ the wolf answered. ‘And what is more there is power in numbers.’
The tarantula paused to crush a passing marmoset then said he doubted the wolf, for all the help he received, would ever be as successful a huntsman as he was. The wolf wagered a week’s catch on his ability to outhunt the tarantula and, returning to his lair, told his wife and children of the bet.
‘You owe me,’ he told the tarantula when they next met.
‘And your proof?’
‘Well I expect you to trust my word, but if you don’t, then go ahead and search the wilderness with your own eyes.’
This the tarantula did, and sure enough discovered that of all the wolf’s natural prey not a single creature remained.
‘I salute your efficiency,’ the tarantula said, ‘but it does occur to me to wonder what you are going to do for sustenance now.’
At this the grey wolf burst into tears. ‘I have had to eat my wife,’ he admitted. ‘And next week I will start on my children.’
‘And after that?’
‘After that? After that I will have no option but to eat myself.’
Moral: Always leave a little on your plate.
MORNINGS WEREN’T GOOD for either of them.
‘Here we go again,’ Ailinn Solomons said to herself.
She swung her legs out of the bed and looked at her feet. Even before Kevern’s insult she had disliked them. The broad insteps. The squat scarab toes, more like thumbs, each the same length as the others. She would have liked Pan pipes toes, beautifully graduated, musical, such as a Sylvan god might have put his lips to. She slid them into slippers and then slid them out again. The slippers made them look, if anything, worse. Hausfrau feet. The same old graceless feet, carrying her through the same old graceless life. No wonder, she caught herself thinking. . but couldn’t finish. No wonder what?
In reality there wasn’t much that was ‘same old’ about her life, other than the habit of thinking there was. By any objective measure — and she could see objectivity, just out of reach — she was living adventurously. She had recently moved into a new house. In the company of a new friend. In a new village. For the move she had bought herself new clothes. New sunglasses. A new bag. New nail polish. Even her slippers were new. The house, though new to her, was not new to itself. It felt skulkingly ecclesiastical, which Ailinn had reasons of her own to dislike, as though a disreputable abbé or persecuted priest — a pastor too austere for his congregation or a padre too fleshly for his — had gone to ground there and finally forgotten what he was hiding from. It had stood stonily in its own damp in a dripping valley, smelling of wild garlic and wet gorse, for centuries. Neither the light of hope nor the light of disillusionment made it through its small, low windows, so deep into the valley. It deferred expectation — was the best you could say of it. Whoever had lived here before her, they had been, like the vegetation, neither happy nor unhappy. But though she shrank from its associations, it was still an improvement on the square slab of speckled concrete she had latterly grown up in, with its view that was no view of a silted estuary — the dull northern tide trickling in from nowhere on the way to nowhere — and the company of her frayed-tempered parents who weren’t really her parents at all.
And — and — she had met a new man. The one who had insulted her feet.
True, he was no Sylvan god, and would not have put her feet to his lips even if he had been — but that was no consolation for her having probably lost him. He had — he’d had — promise.
As for the rest — including the new friend, who was much older than her and more a sort of guardian (funny the way she attracted guardians) — they struck her as incidentals, a rearrangement of the furniture, that was all. In every other regard she was still herself. That was what was cruel about superficial change: it exposed what could never change. Better to have stayed where she was and waited. As long as you are waiting you can’t be disappointed. I was all right when I was in suspense, she thought. But that wasn’t true either. She had never been all right.
Her heart, periodically, fluttered. Arrhythmia, the doctor called it. ‘Nothing to worry about,’ he said when the tests came back. She laughed. Of course it was nothing to worry about. Life was nothing to worry about. In the place she had come from people said that your heart fluttered when someone you loved had died.
‘What if you don’t love anybody?’ she had asked her adoptive mother.
‘Then it’s the anniversary of the death of someone you loved in a previous life,’ the older woman had answered.
As though she wasn’t morbid enough on her own account without having to hear nonsense like that.
She didn’t know who her actual mother and father were and remembered little about her life before her faux parents picked her out from the orphanage like an orange, except for how unlike the way she thought a little girl was supposed to be she felt. Today, whatever she could or couldn’t remember, she seemed older to herself than her twenty-five years. What about twenty-five hundred? What about twenty-five thousand? ‘Don’t exaggerate, Ailinn,’ people had always told her. (Twenty-five thousand years?) But it wasn’t she who exaggerated, it was they who reduced. Her head was like an echo chamber. If she concentrated long and hard enough, she sometimes thought, she would hear the great ice splitting and the first woolly mammoths come lolloping down from central Asia. Perhaps everybody — even the abridgers and condensers — could do the same but were embarrassed to talk about it. Unless infancy in the company of real parents had filled their minds with more immediate and, yes, trivial sensations. Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting — who said that?
Ha! — she had forgotten.
It was a good job that history books were hard to come by, that diaries were hidden or destroyed and that libraries put gentle obstacles in the way of research, otherwise she might have decided to ransack the past and live her life backwards. If only to discover who it was her heart periodically fluttered for.
A sodden old snail appeared from under her bed, dragging a smear of egg white behind it. It was all she could do not to crush it with her bare, ugly foot.
Before chancing his nose outside his cottage in the morning, Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen turned up the volume on the loop-television, poured tea — taking care to place the cup carelessly on the hall table — and checked twice to be certain that his utility phone was on and flashing. A facility for making and receiving local telephone calls only — all other forms of electronic communication having been shut down after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, to the rapid spread of whose violence social media were thought to have contributed — the utility phone flashed a malarial yellow until someone rang, and then it glowed vermilion. But it rarely rang. This, too, he left on the hall table. Then he rumpled the silk Chinese hallway runner — a precious heirloom — with his shoe.
The action was not commemorative in intent, but it often reminded him of a cruelly moonlit night many years before, when after a day strained by something — money worries or illness or news which the young Kevern gathered must have been very bad — his sardonic, creaking father had kicked the runner aside, raised the hem of his brocade dressing gown, and danced an enraged soft-shoe shuffle, his arms and legs going up and down in unison like those of a toy skeleton on a stick. He hadn’t known his son was on the stairs, watching.
Kevern pressed himself into the darkness of the stairwell. Became a shadow. He was too frightened to say anything. His father was not a dancing man. He stayed very still, but the cottage thrummed to its occupants’ every anxiety — he could sense his parents’ troubled sleep through the floorboards under his bed, even though he slept in a room below theirs — and now the disturbance his fear generated gave his presence away.
‘Sammy Davis unior,’ his father explained awkwardly when he saw him. His voice was hoarse and dry, a rattle from ruined lungs. Because he spoke with an accent even Kevern found strange, as though he’d never really listened to how people spoke in Port Reuben, he released his words reluctantly. He put two fingers across his mouth, like a tramp sucking on a cigarette butt he’d found in a rubbish bin. This he always did to stifle the letter before it left his lips.
The boy was none the wiser. ‘Sammy Davis unior?’ He too, religiously in his father’s presence — and often even when his father wasn’t there — sealed his lips against the letter when it began a word. He didn’t know why. It had begun as a game between them when he was small. His father had played it with his own father, he’d told him. Begin a word with a without remembering to put two fingers across your mouth and it cost you a penny. It had not been much fun then and it was not much fun now. He knew it was expected of him, that was all. But why was his father being Sammy Davis unior, whoever Sammy Davis unior was?
‘Song and dance man,’ his father said. ‘Mr Bo angles. No, you haven’t heard of him.’
Him? Which him? Sammy Davis unior or Mr Bo angles?
Either way, it sounded more like a warning than a statement. If anybody asks, you haven’t heard of him. You understand? Kevern’s childhood had been full of such warnings. Each delivered in a half-foreign tongue. You don’t know, you haven’t seen, you haven’t heard. When his schoolteachers asked questions his was the last hand to go up: he said he didn’t know, hadn’t seen, hadn’t heard. In ignorance was safety. But it worried him that he might have sounded like his father, lisping and slithering in another language. So he spoke in a whisper that drew even more attention to his oddness.
In this instance his father needn’t have worried. Kevern hadn’t only not heard of Sammy Davis unior, he hadn’t heard of Sammy Davis Senior either.
Ailinn would not have said no to such a father, no matter how strange his behaviour. It helped, she thought, to know where your madness came from.
Once Kevern had closed and double-locked the front door, he knelt and peered through the letter box, as he imagined a burglar or other intruder might. He could hear the television and smell the tea. He could see the phone quietly pulsing yellow, as though receiving dialysis, on the hall table. The silk runner, he noted with satisfaction, might have been trodden on by a household of small children. No sane man could possibly leave his own house without rearranging the runner on the way out.
He had a secondary motive for shuffling the rug. It demonstrated that it was of no value to him. The law — though it was nowhere written down; a willing submission to restraint might be a better way of putting it, a supposition of coercion — permitted only one item over a hundred years old per household, and Kevern had several. Mistreatment of them, he hoped, would quiet suspicion.
At the extreme limit of letter-box vision the toes of worn leather carpet slippers were just visible. Clearly he was at home, the fusspot, probably nodding in front of the television or reading the unk mail which had in all likelihood been delivered only minutes ago, in the excitement of collecting which he had left his tea and utility phone by the door. But at home, faffing, however else you describe what he was doing.
He returned to the cottage three times, at fifteen-second intervals, looking through his letter box to ascertain that nothing had changed. On each occasion he pushed his hand inside to be sure the flap had not stuck in the course of his inspections — a routine that had to be repeated in case the act of making sure had itself caused the flap to am — then he took the cliff path and strode distractedly in the direction of the sea. The sea that no one but a few local fishermen sailed on, because there was nowhere you could get to on it — a sea that lapped no other shore.
Nothing had changed there either. The cliff still fell away sharply, sliced like cake, turning a deep, smoky purple at its base; the water still massed tirelessly, frothing and fuming, every day the same. Faffing, like Kevern. More angrily, but to no more purpose.
That was the great thing about the sea: you didn’t have to worry about it. It wasn’t going anywhere and it wasn’t yours. It hadn’t been owned and hidden by your family for generations. It didn’t run in your blood.
He did, however, have his own bench. Not officially. It didn’t have his name on it, but it was respected by the villagers of Port Reuben as they might have respected a wall against which the village idiot kicked his heels. Coco sits here. The silly bleeder.