28 November 2010

The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question was awarded the Man Booker Prize for 2010 (my money was on Emma Donoghue's Room, since that was the only shortlisted title I managed to read before the winner was announced).  I was going to read the winning book anyway but I got really interested when everyone said The Finkler Question was a "humourous" novel and it is rare when a humorous novel wins a major award.  I fired up the nook, downloaded, and started reading.

The Finkler Question is very comical at the beginning, if not funny "ha-ha" - the character of Julian Treslove is more like a caricature than a character.  He is morose (sort-of), a professional failure as an arts presenter at the BBC, tends to become hopelessly involved with women whose names begin with "J" and who leave him when they can't stand the moroseness anymore, and is obsessed with his friend, Sam Finkler, who is Jewish (also a pop culture philosopher and kind-of a jerk for most of the book).  In fact, Julian is so obsessed with Finkler and his Jewishness that he refers to anyone/anything that is Jewish as "Finklers"/"Finklerish", presumably because Sam Finkler is the first Jew he met.  Julian and Sam were roommates at school and one of their teachers was Libor Sevcik who has remained a good friend (incidentally, Libor is also Jewish).

The book opens with Julian getting mugged in front of a violin shop after having dinner with Libor and Sam, who are both recently widowed.  Julian then becomes obsessed with the idea that the mugger called him a "Jew" (it's unclear what the mugger actually said but, given Julian's obsession with Sam and "Finklers", there is a crazy sequence where Julian reasons through all the possibilities of what the mugger could have said, ending with "Jew"; everyone else thinks he's being irrational).  Many of Julian's scenes involve some moment of hilarity, usually with his line of reasoning, except that it seems socially awkward to laugh at them.  For instance, Julian thinks over his affair with Tyler, Sam's late wife, who, as a convert to Judaism, was more observant of religious practice than Sam; Julian thinks less about the fact that Tyler is a friend's wife, but more about the fact that she practices the Jewish faith.  Later, Julian quibbles over the act of circumcision with reasoning that seems farcical but, in reality, there are serious questions about the necessity of circumcision in the general population and whether it constitutes mutilation, diminishes sexual gratification, etc.  I wanted to laugh, because Julian sounded so silly, but it felt wrong to do so.

The Finkler Question surrounds the characters with politically-charged current events, particularly that of attitudes toward the state of Israel.  Sam joins a group of politically active Jews who oppose actions taken by the state of Israel; they eventually name themselves the ASHamed Jews, which is ridiculous-sounding (and then you realise that Sam only joined the group to keep his name out there as a pop culture philosopher).  A new museum of Jewish history in the UK is the target of anti-Semitic attitudes.  An old friend of Libor's asks for his help after her grandson is severely injured by a hate crime.  In between Julian's oddities there are serious issues to consider.

While I really enjoyed Jacobson's writing and the ideas he raised in the book, I felt the end was wanting.  It just petered out.  The strongest sections of the book occurred when Julian was wrestling with his obsession about Judaism and those who practice.  When the narrative moved away from that thread, the book wasn't nearly as interesting.  I really think this is because I, as the reader, and Julian are both in the same boat when it comes to the concept of Judaism: we are both outsiders looking in.  I know a little bit about Jewish religious observances but not a great deal about the whys and wheretofores of the religion.  While Julian and his goofy quibblings were funny, the larger questions of religion in The Finkler Question didn't strike me as laugh-out-loud.

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