In another few days, every town and street corner will be hosting a Big Literature Festival. It is natural then, around this time of year, to hear murmurings about smug, back-patting, liquor-guzzling intellectuals. Along with some less-than-tasteful suggestions: it may be remarked, for instance, that a giant Godzilla foot squelching down on the Jaipur festival lawns on a weekend evening would wipe out our literary community in one swell foop. But notably, most such comments come from insiders themselves and therefore have a certain amount of wistful self-loathing built into them – the last time I heard the Godzilla one, it was said at Jaipur on a weekend evening, and by someone who is himself sometimes regarded as being part of this putative “community”. (He, of course, denies it vigorously. He also denies being the present writer.)
Creatively executed, such self-commentaries – litterateurs sniffing or whining about litterateurs – can be a form of meta-fiction, and meta-fiction is all the rage these days. Much contemporary literature is explicitly about writers and writing, giving the impression that the Novel is not so much dead as trapped in a giant hall of mirrors. Self-reflexive writing of this sort can become tedious (witness the present column), but heading into December I found it almost comforting to read Howard Jacobson’s new novel Zoo Time, with its comically apocalyptic vision of the publishing world – a vision that almost makes our lit-fest and book-launch season seem stable and sane.
Here are some of the things that happen in Zoo Time’s hysterical universe. A publisher shoots himself in the mouth shortly after a meal with an author (during which they talked about a literary world forever altered by Twitter, blogs and vampire-replete bestsellers). Terrified agents lock themselves in lavatories “rather than have a manuscript handed to them personally like a subpoena”, and one of them is lost on the Hindu Kush with a manuscript in his backpack. (“Had Quinton lost his bearings and gone stumbling through the ice with my manuscript wrapped around him for insulation, or had the novel itself sent him mad? The question, to tell the truth, wasn’t much discussed. A literary agent going missing was much too common an occurrence to attract speculation.”) The marriage of the book’s narrator – Guy Ableman, author of a novel titled “Who Gives a Monkey’s?” – is in trouble, partly because the sound of his writing drives his wife to madness. (“But so did the sound of my not writing.”)
In this strangely familiar dystopia, literary parties are like funeral wakes (“except that at a wake there’d have been more to drink, and fuller sandwiches”) and a car exhaust backfiring might cause passersby to wonder if another publisher had taken his life within their earshot. The few remaining readers quiver with rage whenever they meet a writer (“was it because reading as a civilised activity was over that the last people doing it were reduced to such fury? Was this the final paroxysm before expiry?”) and are actively hostile in their dissection of his “berk” (no one says “book” anymore, it's too much effort). The best chance a young author has of producing a hit is to write a memoir about losing his sight when his adoptive mother’s silicone breasts exploded in his face.
Beyond all these things, Zoo Time’s threadbare “plot” is about the deep attraction Ableman feels for his wife’s mother Poppy, but he uses a literary analogy to describe even this: is sleeping with your mother-in-law like stealing your own book? Throughout, he is a self-conscious wordsmith in the act of constructing his own story, correcting himself mid-sentence, giving us glimpses – whether reliable or not – of how his real life intersects with his fiction. And in doing this, Jacobson’s novel asks that pertinent question: should a writer exist (for the reader) beyond the page? It is a question that was raised memorably in Jaipur two years ago, when J M Coetzee – among the last of the truly taciturn big-name authors – read a long extract from his work but didn’t otherwise say a word. Jacobson may or may not have had Coetzee in mind when he writes about a Nobel-winning Dutch author who simply sat on the stage in front of his festival audience: “So the hour would have passed, each staring at the other in silence, had someone not thought of showing slides of the bridges of Amsterdam. When it was over they gave him a standing ovation.”
Zoo Time is among the most tongue-in-cheek doomsday books I have read. It is about the long-awaited demise of writing and reading (and therefore about the end of everything, since it is narrated by a man obsessed with these things), but it is also a reminder that good meta-fiction can help keep literature alive in the very process of sounding its death-knell. If writers absolutely have to write solipsistic books about writing (and really, one wishes they wouldn’t), this is a fine way to do it. I do hope though that Jacobson is careful in choosing what passages to read at his (no doubt many) impending appearances in clubby literary festivals.
Perhaps the one that begins thus?
This is when you know you’re in deep shit as a writer – when the heroes of your novels are novelists worrying that the heroes of their novels are novelists who know they’re in deep shit...
[Did a version of this for Business Standard's Eye Culture column]