Book Review: Zoo Time

By John Gardner

Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson
Bloomsbury $36.99

Book cover of Zoo Time. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Zoo Time. Photo / Supplied

Writers, it is sometimes said, lead a life of the mind. But in the case of Guy Ableman, the novelist protagonist of Howard Jacobson's new book, it is not a life of quiet contemplation.

Ableman is a volcano of feverish imagination, with two competing and complementary obsessions: his writing and his passion for his vivid wife Vanessa and her equally blazing mother Poppy.

Once a successful writer, Ableman is surrounded by the collapse of the literary world as he knew it. Books are a vanishing breed, apart from efforts like "a new TV tie-in cookery book by Dahlia Blade, a bulimic Kabbalist from an all-vegan girl band". His publisher shoots himself and his agent offers no hope. Tweets, story apps and e-books threaten doom. Literacy has become irrelevant and outmoded.

This apocalyptic vision gives Man Booker Prize-winner Jacobson the perfect opportunity for a fiercely comic farce across the literary scene. He has endless fun with reading groups, literary festivals, chick lit, the passion for the Tudors, militant feminists and, of course, book reviewers.

Little is left unscathed as Ableman frantically pursues his vanishing career across the world. Even flattened New Zealand vowels come in for a familiar smack, one of Jacobson's staler jokes, perhaps a relic from the years he spent in Australia.

The Antipodes are the setting for crucial incidents in the pursuit of Ableman's other pre-occupation: consuming, irrational lust. He is bedevilled by sex, particularly but not exclusively involving the impossibly glamorous Vanessa and her mother. In keeping with Jacobson's chronicle of the absurd, this larger than life pair come into Ableman's life in the definitively bourgeois setting of his family's dress shop in the well-heeled suburb of Wilmslow, a retreat famous in Britain for housing a disproportionate number of footballers.

But it is in Australia where his lubricious impulses towards his mother-in-law shift ever more perilously and ludicrously from fantasies of lust to physical reality. As ever for a writer, the stuff of life becomes grist for the mill and Ableman flirts with turning his infatuation with his flame-haired, high-breasted mother-in-law into a book. Meanwhile, Vanessa is following her own literary ambitions.

Ableman's mind is wild, dirty and whirling but Jacobson's prose is always under tight control as he shifts in time and setting in language that is bursting with energy but completely disciplined.

His cast delivers more entertainment even when they are caricatures like the film director Dirk de Wolff and the fantasy writer Garth Rhodes Rhind and some of the more fully realised characters like Ableman's brother Jeffrey, who turns away from his boutique to recapturing his Jewish identity as Yafet, are as entrancing as Vanessa.

The plot, a framework scorned by Ableman, is slight but it provided enough narrative drive amid the satire to keep this reader hooked until the end of this thoroughly enjoyable novel.

The literary book may be heading for extinction but in hands like Jacobson's, it is going down fighting.

John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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