Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson: A review

I'm not sure that Howard Jacobson would welcome the comparison, but he reminds me of Philip Roth. Roth at his best, that is, because Jacobson's Man Booker prize-winning The Finkler Question is very good. It is an exploration of the Jewish identity - the Jewish (Finkler) question - laced with good humor and a comic sensibility that is accessible to any reader without respect to religious background or preference.

Jacobson tells his story through the perceptions and worries of one Julian Treslove, who isn't a Jew. In fact, he is one of the few characters in this book who isn't. His two best friends, Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler, are both Jews and Treslove is envious of them. He feels excluded from their culture and he very much wants in.

Treslove has lost his job at BBC and now makes his living impersonating famous people like Brad Pitt and Colin Firth. His life is changed when he is mugged one night - by a woman! - and he comes to believe that he was attacked because the mugger thought he was a Jew. He becomes more and more obsessed with making the mugger's misidentification of him become reality.

Treslove's friend, Libor, is an elderly man, a recent widower who has lost his beloved wife, Malkie, and who was teacher to both Treslove and Finkler when they were in school. He has passed his ninth decade and now he feels bereft and alone without Malkie. He finds it difficult to come up with a reason to go on living without her.

Sam Finkler is a wildly successful writer of pop psychology or pop philosophy books of the self-help variety. He, too, is a recent widower, having lost his wife Tyler. Tyler, who had had an affair with Treslove, which Finkler apparently never knew about. Finkler is a stereotypical self-hating Jew. When Finkler remarks to Libor that he doesn't have anti-Semitic friends, Libor replies: "Yes, you do. The Jewish ones." In the context of this book, that seems all too true.

Jacobson is dealing here with free-floating anxiety. It's the anxiety of the individual "Finkler" as well as the anxiety of the larger Finklerish (i.e., Jewish) community. He explores Jewish attitudes regarding all facets of Middle East politics, as well as attitudes toward Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust, and toward the religion of Judaism. He paints with a broad brush, and yet within those sweeping swirls of paint, he manages to delineate the finer details of his characters' personalities.

This is a book that is both funny and sad, bombastic and subtle. It is extremely well-written, as becomes the Man Booker prize winner, and I think it will appeal to a wide audience. It certainly appealed to me.

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