Booker prize chairman, Sir Andrew Motion (Guardian.co.uk / Oct. 2010) : It [Finkler Question] won because it was the best book. You expect a book by Howard Jacobson to be very clever and very funny and it is both those things. But it is also, in a very interesting way, a very sad, melancholic book. It is comic, it is laughter, but it is laughter in the dark.
Around chapter 12 or thereabouts, Andrea Levy's fictional slave narrative set in Jamaica takes a truly interesting turn. The slave owners are gone for good it seems, and July, a house slave, sums up the situation and pauses to bask in her new found freedom:
O, what a hush did settle upon that house. With no missus nor massa within it the wooden planks of the floor did stretch and yawn, as no heavy foot was about to pound them. The chairs did breathe a sigh, for no fat-batty was about to crush them. The moats of grime that swirled within the gleams of sunlight floated softly down to rest. And, no longer required to look their best, the drapes at the windows drooped.
July slid the length of the polished floor within the hall upon her dirty apron. She had never before reached so far in one glide. She thought to call Molly to witness this daring . . . but stopped. For with Godfrey away, looking upon mischief other than hers, if she kept far from the kitchen and the gaze of Molly's good eye then, at that moment, she was free.
Up until that moment, the novel is mildly entertaining in spurts with an "unreliable" narrator, and a mother/son relationship which mirrors the jousting the narrator/mother anticipates with her potential readers. It is up until that moment (arguably) a rather less-than-spectacular slave story, admittedly so because Marlon James's is still so fresh in my mind. Levy's story, which (like James's) experiments with colloquial language, and which contains an intriguing ahistoric version of slavery, nevertheless pales in comparison to his fervor.
But at that moment when July contemplates freedom, Long Song steps out of the shadows of Night Women. Night Women's heroines are (structurally speaking) never really able to break free of the novel's repeated doomy phrase every negro walk in a circle. In comparison, July's moment is one full of breathless expectancy and wonder at the sudden, real, possibility of freedom. Part of what encourages readers to see July's moment this way is what we know about her outcome. We have some knowledge of the narrator's now comfortable status in life, and at that moment it's compelling to get caught up in her what's-next euphoria. It's proof that knowledge about outcome doesn't necessarily spoil the progression of a story.
What also makes July's moment of freedom a noteworthy turn in the novel, is its bit of psychological intrigue. At the time when she realizes she is no longer bounded to one place, July still sees herself bounded by those left behind--a black cook, and a "house boy"--who would keep her in that place or rebuke her if she stepped out of it. It's a moment taut with some of the questions facing the colonies post-emancipation . . . freedom yes, but how far from one's former shackles...
This breathless expectancy anchored and buoyed by a lingering question of limitation is the layered idea on which Long Song works best. The narrator wants to write her life story in the form of her choice (she chooses fiction). She wants to be selective about the details she uses, and she wants to add and elaborate where she sees fit, but her son / editor insists that she tell the truth, that she write it as it happened. He is the stand-in for the historian with a keen view of the "true" linear progression of things and July battles with him to tell her story just the way she wants. And she seems to know exactly to whom she writes. She envisions readers who may have read enough of the gory details of slavery to be fed up and wish to be spared those details. Those readers, she presumes, outnumber the steadfast historians.
It seems Levy and her narrator envisioned well. Long Song was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize last year, though it (and others in the running) lost to Howard Jacobson's Finkler Question. And having read both books--both novels, both concerned with two of the most horrendous periods of human destruction in history--I paused to contemplate why one would be (possibly) chosen over the other. So with the eyes of a judge (hindsight considered), I weighed the two books.
The first well-targeted heavyweight punch Jacobson throws is his characters. His are fully developed, even the minor ones, and fully fleshed out people. Jacobson's characters are all more or less built around a question, pointed at one of the major characters Julian Treslove, but nevertheless, one by which they can all be assessed and discussed:
The question of what precisely Treslove was for--whether in the professional, the religious or indeed, the marital sense--remained to be addressed.
A trio of men take centerstage in Jacobson's novel. There is Treslove, a one-time journalist who has never been truly successful at anything--not a career, not relationships, not fatherhood. His longtime rival and friend, Sam Finkler, is a modern day philosopher/healer/social prognosticator who'd made a fortune writing self-help practical philosophy books like The Existentialist in the Kitchen, and The Little Book of Household Stoicism. He is a widower, and a father of three young adults. Rounding out the trio is Libor Sevcik who had been their history teacher once. He'd also been successful as a well-connected film critic and gossip columnist in Czechoslovakia and in Hollywood. Libor is (as is Sam Finkler) Jewish, and a widower, but he has no children.
Most of the novel's plot revolves around Treslove, who at 49 is still uncertain of his life's path, and is fascinated with Jews. One might suppose Treslove is the one who seems most headed towards an adventure worth following: He's not tied to anything concrete--not a job, not lifestyle, not relationship. He is the consummate floater: He is good-looking without being specifically definitive of face, in fact, "he looked like everyone and everybody but was in fact no one and nobody." He lives for "illusory fits of exhilaration to which purposeless men are susceptible."
One of the early propelling moments along Treslove's journey occurs when he is assaulted in the street by a woman he imagines mistakes him for a jew. He becomes obsessed with the thought that he might actually be Jewish, and tries to find out exactly what that might mean for him. His friends Libor and Finkler battle with their own feelings about being Jewish throughout the novel, and their insights provide insider/outsider distinctions about being a modern day Jew.
The conclusions the three men make contain the novel's many satisfying moments of catharsis. They include Libor's weary, grief-striken rejection of his formerly held principles, Finkler's impassioned moment at a public event, and Treslove's realization of the futility of his adopted lifestyle. The conclusions about what it means to be Jewish are as complex as one can reasonably imagine. Almost everyone, minor or major, gets a valuable say. And in addition to the novel's explorations into the modern day "Jewish question," it scores equally heavily on the questions it raises about male/female relationships, about grief and survival, and about male friendships. It is as complete a character-package of entertainment as one can wish for in a novel.
In comparison, Levy's characters (except for July) are mostly based on stereotypes--the oft-portrayed massa and missus, evil and hypocritical, the stifling jealousy between slaves--though the fact that they are recognizable stereotypes may be positive (with a grimace) . . . a testament to the proliferation of much-needed-to-tell stories about slavery. That considered, for me, Jacobson's characters are better explored, and a better read.
For me also, Jacobson's other knockout punches are in his use of language and anticipation about audience. Where he is witty, deft, and dead-on, she is too heavily sarcastic or too glancing to really connect. Where he anticipates questions and the opinions of a wide audience on the "Jewish" question in particular, she seems to anticipate an audience who is either only interested in the facts about slavery (she scoffs at them), or an audience too fed-up with stories about slavery to really care for its details (she caters to them, but isn't particularly fond of them either). Her narrator's anticipation about extremist views may have been entertaining enough to get her on the shortlist (wonderful anyway!), but for me (comparatively speaking), it ultimately leadens the book. There is (arguably) very little middle ground to provoke the thoughts of other discerning readers.
But. But. But. Book award or book prize judges' views are often unreasonably searching ones, digging the lines and chapters for depth and meaning beyond the work's obvious (and much fairer to point out) worth. And so to that end, I have to say that I found Long Song an enjoyable human story. Come, take a look see. See that former slave woman writing with the leaky pen, messing up the fine paper her well-to-do son gave her to write on? You wonder how she got there? Come, listen to her. Let your mouth hang open when she describes what happened to her babies. Laugh with her when she describes a certain pork dish, and a certain fat-batty missus. Ha! Watch her chase down that white man for marriage. Feel her frustration when she puts a period at the end of her story and her son tells her to remove it because that's not how it happened. Consider the possibilities she throws out to you about outcome--storylines, bloodlines, societal change--and maybe you'll have your thoughts treated to an intelligent provocation. But even if you don't, you'll still love July. I do.
[If you haven't read Long Song, and you'd like a chance to make up your own mind about it, let me know here in the comments or by email: signifyinguyana[at]gmail.com, and I'll send you a free copy.]
The Long Song, by Andrea Levy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, 320 pp).
The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson (Bloombury, 2010, 320 pp).