‘Jacobson captures the mood of a relationship disintegrating well’ – Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson

I like Howard Jacobson’s books. Yes he’s grumpy and middle-aged and Jewish and is obsessed with women but I feel I’m getting a sneaky peak into men’s psyche when I read him. With Zoo Time it felt as if this was Howard Jacobson laid on a plate for inspection to be picked apart by viewers. The protagonist is Guy Ableman, an allegory for every man and his suffering, this time an author originally from near Manchester and now living in London with a bored wife and a mother-in-law he can’t stop fantasising over.

Guy was a star with his first novel about a zoo keeper and her monkeys, written in the upmarket clothes shop in Wilmslow, home of the WAG tribe, during his quiet moment following an affair with a zookeeper. His references to the monkey’s ‘angry red penis’ shocked the writing sphere and he was celebrated as the latest thing. He moved to London with his glamorous wife, Vanessa, in tow and has since failed to live up to the literary world’s expectations since then with his follow-up books. His world is crumbling around his ears, faster than he would have liked and Guy is certainly not up to dealing with the fallout.

Most of the first half of the story is about Guy’s stresses and worries, almost a running monologue demonstrating the anxieties he creates around his life as he searches for something, led by his own angry red penis. He is very self-conscious and analyses everything he does, every thought and every part of his life over and over again. There isn’t much plot here, more of a rumination of where he’s gone wrong.

He’s a pretty miserable and angry man. And fairly misogynistic, which is also pointed out by the other characters in the book. His wife is trying to write a book, and has been for years, though Guy’s presence is stifling and she rarely gets far without stopping. Guy is a strong character generally and his thoughts do before stifling as each one is recorded for us, the reader becomes weighed down with Guy’s angsts and inability for action. If he was real I would slap him, tell him to pull himself together and to stop thinking with his dick. And maybe get a real job.

The second half of the novel has more plot and, finally, some movement. Action! Jacobson relocates Guy, the wife and the mother-in-law, Poppy, to Australia, because somewhere hot and exotic can always provide an interesting angle. He finds inspiration for his next book and Vanessa finds an American billionaire who encourages her to write and then turns her book into a blockbuster film. So there.

With Guy as an author, Jacobson takes a pop at the publishing industry, commenting on the devastating effects ebooks have had. There are suicides and breakdowns as the new world forces itself onto the old way of life. And Guy has to find his way somehow.

The characters aren’t likeable, the writing is circular as Guy mulls over or has a flashback to a memory over and over again, but Jacobson captures the mood of a relationship disintegrating well; the awful conversations, the suspicions, the regrets and the last chances.

Any Cop?: The writing is funny, there are great observations on people and society but I would’ve liked a little more plot, less introspection please.


Claire Snook


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