‘There’s a great concept buried underneath this novel’ – J by Howard Jacobson

jhjWHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. That is the only way the events which led to the post-apocalyptic world of J are referenced. But what did happen? Dissecting the clues, it seems that Britain, and perhaps the world, experienced a kind of meltdown. A certain section of society, but maybe not the one you’d expect, has been completely wiped out. Much of their downfall seems to have been engendered on social media, and subsequently, all communications of that type have been eradicated. Many things are now, although not banned exactly, simply no longer available. Certain types of music, art, literature, and even furniture. As post-apocalyptic worlds go, it is nowhere near as dramatic as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Margaret Attwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, but, by taking away those things that are so familiar to us in the here and now, it does present a more relatable, if less interesting, future.

At the heart of the tale are Kevern and Ailinn. In a time when everybody has been moulded to feel like one big family with no differences, Kevern and Ailinn are outsiders. This shouldn’t be possible, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Forced together in mysterious circumstances, they find a bond that has been missing from their lives. But they’re being watched. By many different people. What they and the readers don’t know for most of the novel is that these two loners may have a big role to play in the next phase of society.

Jacobson throws a few curveballs into the story. The village the couple lives in is suddenly visited by a murderous spree. Kevern becomes a suspect. Fleeing the heat, they visit the capital, where they find a world that doesn’t seem too removed from the one we live in today. But to them, this strikes a level of fear that they can’t explain. Because WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED is not allowed to be discussed in anything other than this vague manner, it seems that those who survived it have no way of dealing with its aftermath.

There’s a great concept buried underneath this novel. As with most post-apocalyptic works, this one seeks to answer or illuminate questions that are integral to our world today. The fact that WHAT HAPPENED saw a race or religion almost eradicated points fingers at the villainisation of certain sections of our own society. That social media is forwarded as a crucial part in this downfall seems not only believable, but possibly prophetic. But, despite the good ideas behind it, it seems like this Booker nominated novel may have only got the nominations because of its ideas, not their execution.

Any Cop?: J is a novel that relies heavily on obscuring the facts. WHAT HAPPENED? We don’t know. In part, it seems this is what is supposed to provide the tension, but it doesn’t. The world we see in J is hardly horrible enough to have us screaming and crying, desperate to know what could have caused this chaos. A few people live in a nice village and drink in pubs but they’re not allowed to listen to Ray Charles. Oh, the horror. It’s the start of a great idea, chopped off at its roots. Other voices cut through the narrative of Kevern and Ailinn, but they largely fail to illuminate the story in the way we’d hope. Maybe because the novel is often played for laughs, it fails to get to the meat of the story. WHAT HAPPENED might have been an interesting question, but the answers we get are not.


Fran Slater



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