Archive | October, 2012

Howard Jacobson takes on Zadie Smith in Stylist magazine’s BOOK WARS

14 Oct

So I recently reviewed two books as part of Stylist magazine’s BOOK WARS feature. For the uninitiated, Book Wars pits two reviewers against each other as they argue why their chosen novel is that week’s must-read. In September, Howard Jacobson (he of Man Booker Prize winning-ness) and Zadie Smith (she of White Teeth and On Beauty) both released new novels. I was a newbie to both authors, which is probably a bit embarrassing, but I guess it also meant that I approached both books with very little preconceptions. That said, I was surprised by my reaction… Here’s my side of the review (and when I can get the Stylist website to work properly I’ll post a link to the full feature so you can read the other review)…

                       Zadie Smith NW

I have a confession to make – I’m a bit scared of literary fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not just into the fluffy stuff; my copy of Twilight sits along side Fitzgerald, Nicole Krauss and Jennifer Egan. But whilst I love books that make you think, I can’t stand it if a book makes you do too much work. Which is why Zadie Smith’s NW just didn’t do it for me. The urban tragicomedy is brilliantly executed, but I felt like I could have done with a SparkNotes guide to help me really understand it.

Zoo Time, on the other hand, hit the spot for me – because it’s just as sharp and intelligent as it is enjoyable to read. Which is ironic given that it’s protagonist – pretentious author and literature purist Guy Ableman – believes that good literature has nothing to do with readability. Suffering from dwindling book sales and writer’s block, he contemplates whether an affair with his long-lusted-after mother-in-law could provide the inspiration (and gratification) he’s looking for. But Ableman’s up against more than just a moral dilemma- he’s also trying to survive in a dying industry (quite literally – his publisher has just shot himself). Libraries are closing, bookshops have shut, agents and authors are locked in bloody brawls. In the words of Ableman: “fiction is f***ed”.

Is it a pessimistic look at the future of books, then? Partly. But the apocalyptic setting is an excellent backdrop for biting humour. In comparison, NW’s arguably weightier subject matter feels a lot more tragic, its comedic moments much more fleeting. I’ll admit that I was unsure whether I could warm to Zoo Time’s sex-crazed, self-obsessed protagonist with a bizarre interest in gorilla’s penises (not for the faint-hearted). But Ableman’s witty repartee keeps it surprisingly jolly, and Jacobson describes it as the most purely comic novel he’s ever written. I also loved Ableman’s wife Vanessa, a feisty, flame-haired temptress with putdowns as spiky as her six-inch stilettos.

In many ways, Zoo Time is an offbeat ode to literature and the art of writing, and bookworms will lap up the literary references. Ableman says he knows a writer’s in trouble when he resorts to writing about writing. But Zoo Time proves that Jacobson has nothing to worry about.

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