Courtney H.'s Reviews > The Finkler Question

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
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Feb 26, 12

bookshelves: bookers
Read in November, 2011

Having just compared The Finkler Question to The Old Devils (and I believe the Finkler Question is the first comic novel since The Old Devils to win the Booker, thank god, which means I'm off the hook for awhile), I figured I'd review it next and re-jump-start my review of Bookers.

So, a lot of people don't like the Finkler Question. I was steeled to not like it but in the end, I was pleasantly surprised. Granted, it still falls fairly low on my list, but it was much better than I expected.

The Finkler Question gets a lot of attention for being a book that interrogates Jewishness in England, and the comedy plays out in the large sense (this is not, I don't think, often a line-by-line laugh-aloud comedy, or else if it does, it missed the mark or I missed the jokes) because the interrogation happens through the eyes of an extremely Gentile middle-age/aging man who becomes convinced that he's actually Jewish. But on the other hand, it also -- and here is where I think it succeeds the most -- is about men, not entirely satisfied with how their lives went (and who are flawed to the point of being fairly unlikeable), aging, some more gracefully or sadly than others. Often these narratives are uncomfortable; the good ones -- and this one definitely had its moments of good -- really get in the crevices of aging and the fact of age when one reaches and is starting to surpass middle age (White Teeth actually does this quite well). And I must say, Libor's arc is quite touching and beautiful and in the end, shockingly powerful. Thinking back, I realized how much this book succeeded in that balance of odd, uncomfortable comedy and sudden depth; and how much The Old Devils failed (mostly because I cared about Libor et al, and never figured out why I am supposed to care about Alun et al from The Old Devils).

Much like the Siege of Krishnapur (which I'll review next, I guess),
the comedy is being drawn from a really ineffectual main character that you don't really like, but who you kind of want to survive even if you don't think he really deserves to thrive because he's so annoying. It walks that fine line: the comedy is focused on a navel-gazing, self-absorbed person; you risk the book seeming too navel-gazing and
self-absorbed, intsead of just using that self-absorption/angst as a
foil. And I think the writer is a bit-self-absorbed, of course; people
keep comparing him to Philip Roth, which may be apt (don't love Roth
too much either, but didn't immediately hit on that comparison--its
been awhile since I've read anything by Roth, so maybe I'm just
forgetting); it seems like Woody Allen is the better comparison.
Sometimes its angst is what makes his movies funny; and sometimes it
is why they bomb in the box office.

And of course, Jacobson takes risks by drawing on stereotypes in order to poke holes in them, or show the individuality that survives stereotypes: if he's not hypervigilant, he forgets and starts letting the stereotypes do too much of the work, which means it stops being comical and starts because earnest, which is bad for readers--either they don't recognize the stereotype and so buy it; or they recognize it and if the comedy isn't good enough, they rightfully get annoyed. And sometimes I think he's guilty of those slips.

In the end, I wasn't blown away by Jacobson's genius, but I also found a lot to appreciate in the book.
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