J by Howard Jacobson
J is set in a dystopic, futuristic world, where WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED has happened. Ailinn and Kevern are misfits in a miserable world, and the community they live in is inhabited by brutality and melancholy. Social thought is tightly controlled, books are edited by those in power, and no one speaks of what did happen. Jacobson offers clues throughout. This from Ailinn:
At first Kevern thought it was his fault. He’d been tossing and turning, perhaps, or snoring, or crying out in the night, stopping her sleeping. But she told him she had always been like this — not morning grumpiness but a sort of species desolation, as though opening her eyes on a world in which no one of her sort existed.
And from her confidant, Esme:
Of the thoughts that flew at her, as the weeks passed, this last was the most persistent, skimming her cheek with its quilled wing, as though it wanted to scratch her into waking — we are poorer by what we took away.
It’s clear that a mass genocide has taken place. Were all complicit? Jacobson never tells the reader what ‘J’ stands for but it’s simple enough to deduce. There are passages throughout the book that recall pogroms. This quote from a character describing the mob mentality and subsequent murders from the time of WHAT HAPPENED.
I am who I am because I am not them — well, I was not alone in feeling that. We were all who we were because we were not them. So why did that translate into hate? I don’t know, but when everyone’s feeling the same thing it can appear to be reasonableness. Can you understand that? What everyone’s doing becomes a common duty. Besides, it wasn’t for me to play God. These people had their own God, I thought — let Him look after her.
Eventually, Ailinn and Kevern struggle with the truth and identity, and how to change the world they live in. But the changes come with a price.
I don’t hate myself either. But criticism rubs off. How could it be otherwise? Sometimes the glass through which others look at you tilts and you catch a little of what they see.