The Quality of Rachmones
by Howard Jacobson
Hogarth, 288 pp., $25
In 2012, two years after The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize, Howard Jacobson published a comic romp called Zoo Time. Its randy, grumpy protagonist, a Jewish novelist named Guy Ableman, complains that literary fiction is dead and that the public favors plot-driven page-turners over good writing: “Reading should be like sex,” he declares. “The ending is written in the beginning, so just lie back and enjoy the journey.” Zoo Time, sniped The Guardian’s reviewer, is a “400-page tantrum” directed at reading groups, Amazon reviews, vampire novels, Kindle, and so forth. Considering Jacobson’s Man Booker, the critic continued, “You’d think conspicuous success might have softened his attitude to the reading public.” How, in other words, dare this inflexible arriviste, newly admitted to the pantheon of English lit, act with such coarse ingratitude?
Touchy Simon Strulovitch, had he read the review, would have doubtless taken umbrage. Strulovitch is the title character’s Anglo-Jewish doppelgänger in Jacobson’s sparkling new novel of resentment and revenge, Shylock Is My Name. The book is one of a series of contemporary adaptations by top-flight novelists commissioned by the Hogarth Shakespeare project. Jacobson, in press interviews, claimed he’d asked for Hamlet but was typecast to do The Merchant of Venice, a one-liner echoing his shtick about wearying of the label “English Philip Roth” and preferring “Jewish Jane Austen.” The opening scene of his Shylock takes place in a graveyard, a location suggesting that Hamlet will haunt this book too, and it’ll be all about ambivalence as well as anti-Semitism.