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Friday, 15 April 2011

The Booker Question

I’m not one of those people who has to finish a book once I’ve started it. If a book is boring me I’ll quite happily abandon it without a backward glance if I’ve got something better to do. I once whiled away a three hour delay at a shopless Porto airport trying to remember all 92 football league clubs and work out how many grounds I’d been to as The Da Vinci Code lay in my bag, stalled forever at page 62. It’s not a snobbish thing either. War and Peace, Swann’s Way and Lord of the Rings have all gone the way of The Da Vinci Code. (Although I like to think I haven’t given up on War and Peace -  I’m just reading it very very slowly).

As I can’t possibly like everything, if I start a book I don’t like I put it down, move on and forget about it. Except every once in a while I read a book which irritates me so much I just can’t let it go. The Times called Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question “a masterpiece”. Novelist Beryl Bainbridge described as “wonderful”. And to cap it all, it won the 2010 Man Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes. So I bought it and started reading.

I’ll admit, I got off to a bad start. On page 6 we’re told, “It was a late-summer evening, the moon high and skittish.” I knew horses could be skittish, people even. But a moon? I couldn’t get it out of my head. What did it mean? As I sat contemplating, I could see our cocker spaniel Ziggy stretched out by the French doors dozing peacefully, bathed in moonlight. Suddenly, Ziggy jumped up and pressed his nose to the window. It must be foxes in the garden I thought, until silly me, it hit me - a skittish moon freaking out the dog. I wish the moon would stop that and grow up. And as for those stars, so arrogant and aggressive. I wanted to shout out, “Oi twinkle, stop staring at me or I’ll put your lights out!”

Anyway, over the (skittish) moon (as it were) I read on. This is the storyline: three blokes occasionally meet up after two of them lose their wives. That’s it, the end. Except it isn’t quite everything. These loathesome, boring characters endlessly and earnestly ponder BIG themes like loss, friendship and identity, in particular Jewish identity. One of the three, the one who’s not Jewish, is called “Julian”. As Jacobson keeps labouring, the “Ju” bit sounds like “jew”. See what he did there? Exactly, so what?

I’m prepared to accept that maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s not fashionable with Booker Prize judges but I think a plot and some characters the reader can empathise with are a reasonable starting point for a novel. If it was good enough for Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Mark Twain then is it too much to ask of Howard Jacobson? However big and important a book’s themes are, they have no impact if the reader isn't engaged in the story or the characters.

The blurb on the back also describes the Finkler Question as funny. I found one joke early on: one of the characters mistakes the Yiddish word for a swan with the Yiddish word for, wait for it, a penis. Laugh? I nearly wished I was filling out my tax return again.

If you’re still interested in buying this self-indulgent nonsense then my advice would be to check out your local charity shops. I bet they’re awash with them and after page 40 the book won't even be second hand. Meanwhile, where did I leave that War and Peace…

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