Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Finkler Question

I mentioned in my last post that I am woefully behind the times, considering that most of the items on my best of 2010 list were not released in 2010, but acquired in 2010. What I didn't mention is that I have indeed read many books released in's just that none of them made the list (except The Wisdom of Stability and The Narnia Code). Some were close (namely, The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason), but for the most part, I wasn't wowed by the new books I read.

One book that had potential to wow me was The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Booker Prize. I've generally been a fan of the Booker Prize-winning books that I've read (the list of which escapes me now), moreso than books that have won other prizes. (Nobel, you're dead to me.) So it had that going for it before I picked it up. Still, I felt something was lacking--and something else was far too present.

The Finkler Question is a book about jealousy, exclusion, mediocrity, and Jewishness. Much of the book reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where... (Here I'd like to make a brief aside: Seinfeld is the show that I feel defines those who are just a few years older than me. I'm familiar with the show, too, and I frequently find myself referencing it, normally to blank stares [cultural memory is not long-term memory]. It's amazing how a show about nothing can be a show about everything. I prefer to let it live in the memory, though--much like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; I know if I watch it again, I will be disappointed, and will see just how dated it is. It's better to think of it, think of it fondly.) ...Jerry's dentist converts to Judaism, and Jerry is convinced that he converts just for the Jewish jokes. Jerry talks to a rabbi, and the rabbi says, "And this offends you as a Jewish person?" Jerry responds, "It offends me as a comedian!"

That scene from Seinfeld came to mind over and over throughout The Finkler Question, which follows, for the most part, Julian Treslove, an unremarkable man who is so nondescript that he spends his life impersonating various celebrities (his face isn't distinct enough to choose just one). His two closest friends are Sam Finkler, an old classmate turned superstar pop philosopher, and Libor Sevcik, Finkler and Treslove's old schoolteacher. They meet together regularly to discuss widowhood: Libor and Sam's wives both died; Treslove is invited because he's unhappily unmarried. Finkler and Libor are both Jews; Treslove is not. Finkler and Libor have both tasted success; Treslove has not. Already you can see the exclusion at work.

Treslove has spent his life fascinated by Jewish people (whom he calls Finklers), making broad generalizations about them by observing Finkler. When Treslove becomes the victim of what he deems a Jewish hate crime, he delves deeper into Jewish culture, discovering more about himself and his friends.

What this mini-review has not conveyed thus far is that The Finkler Question is hilarious. I think it's safe to say that I laughed out loud at least once on every page. Memorable lines abound, and Jacobson has a gift for language. The situational comedy of the story is excellent, and it is well told. In this regard, it reminded me some of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories. The Finkler Question at its best is a fish-out-of-water story as it follows Julian hilariously trying to navigate a foreign world (namely, the world of being a Jew in Britain).

So why wouldn't I rank it among the best of 2010? Well, for starters, it was simply too vulgar. I don't know who I could recommend it to without qualification. (I ran into similar problems with Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart--another book with loads of potential mired by a fascination with the obscene.) This was actually a problem I had with many of the new books I read in 2010. While Jacobson's Britishness prevented him from being overly graphic, I would still hesitate to recommend the book; the detail it gives is detail enough. The other problem I had with it is how preachy it felt toward the end. I haven't read The Jungle, but Abby has informed me that the latter part of the book is a treatise on how socialism is great. That's kind of how the latter part of The Finkler Question felt: a treatise on Judaism. The rest of the book felt more universal (i.e., dealing with issues everyone can relate to: exclusion, jealousy, inadequacy), but at the last, I felt as excluded as Treslove. (Was this the intent? Perhaps.)

While I can certainly see the merits of The Finkler Question and enjoyed much of my time spent in it, it failed to beat out the other books mentioned in my 2010 list. I might seek out other books by Jacobson in the future, but my answer to The Finkler Question is "no thanks."


  1. I heard an interview with Jacobson on NPR, and from that interview I would say he purposely makes readers feel as excluded as Treslove, because that's the character he most relates to.

  2. That makes sense. The book was hilarious when I could laugh at Treslove's exclusion; it became much more uncomfortable when I was the one left out. If that was his intent, it was effective.