“The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson

Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question is also one of the selections for this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books. What I remember most about the announcement of it’s winning the MB prize was that both the author and many others seemed surprised that it won. After reading this expose, “Tears, Tiffs and Triumphs“, about the judging process of the Booker over the years, I figure the judging is just slightly more than random, but usually a MB prize winner doesn’t suck. And The Finkler Question doesn’t.

The back of the book describes it as “a funny, furious, unflinching story of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and of the wisdom and humanity of maturity. The first adjective is “funny” and many of the blurbs praised its humor, wit and satire, yet the book is much more concerned with the endless complications of anti-Semitism and Israeli/Palestinian violence. There really is nothing funny about the latter, but Jacobson often does find humor in the former, as in the main character Julian Treslove’s weird fixation on the Judaism of his friends:

Before he met Finkler, Treslove had never met a Jew. Not knowingly at least. He supposed a Jew would be like the word Jew–small and dark and beetling. A secret person. But Finkler was almost orange in colour and spilled out of his clothes. He had extravagant features, a prominent jaw, long arms and big feet for which he had trouble finding wide enough shoes, even at fifteen. (Treslove noticed feet; his were dainty like a dancer’s.) What is more–and everything was more on Finkler–he had a towering manner that made him look taller than he actually was, and delivered verdicts on people and events with such assurance that he almost spat them out of his mouth. “Say it, don’t spray it,” other boys sometimes said to him, though they took their lives in their hands when they did. If this was what all Jews looked like, Treslove thought, then Finkler, which sounded like Sprinkler, was a better name for them than Jew. So that was what he called them privately–Finklers.(17)

A subtitle for the book might well have been: “Jewish Identity: It’s Complicated.” Jacobson does an exemplary job of showing, not just telling, how absurdly complicated it is, as well as reminding the reader that racism should never be tolerated, even as it’s so prevalent and ingrained that many wish to dismiss it as benign. This book might have been helpful for me 17 years ago, as I considered converting to Judaism, based largely on the simplistic portrait painted by the rabbi I was studying with. Once I learned that Judaism could be just as silly, awful, complicated and misguided as the religion I was raised in, converting didn’t have nearly the allure it once did. It’s a good book, in that it provoked me to think about the continuing insidious influence of racism. But enjoyable it wasn’t. I have a hard time thinking of anyone I’d recommend this book to.

Next: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

3 Responses to ““The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson”

  1. Amy Says:

    I’m not sure I’m dying to read it. I just gave up halfway through Lord of Misrule, another major award winner, but it just didn’t click for me, and I’m not sure Finkler would either. On to Road for me too. And Henrietta Lacks.

  2. carolyn Says:

    Sounds like something both my Dad and I would enjoy so I’ll take this review as a recommendation to us. :)

  3. girldetective Says:

    Oh, good. It’s a good book, and worth reading, so I feel bad that I can’t enthusiastically recommend it. Thus if it sounds good anyway, I haven’t botched it. There were lots of haters at The Tournament of Books.