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Brave New Reading List: A Blog Series on Dystopian Fiction

By Brita Thielen

J: A Novel – Howard Jacobson

So, you read 1984 and The Giver in high school, and now you’re anxiously awaiting the final installment of The Hunger Games movie franchise. In the meantime, you’re wondering what else is out there in the great world of dystopian fiction.

Or maybe you’ve never read a dystopian novel before but hearing about them everywhere you turn has you curious. Where should you start?

Never fear!  I have pledged to read at least eleven books of dystopian fiction this semester, and I intend to share my journey with you, our beloved Prairie Schooner readers. The majority of the works on my list were published within the last 20 years, and the novels’ subjects include women’s rights, sterility, social media, religion, and environmental catastrophes. If I suddenly board myself up in my apartment and go off the grid, kindly leave some food on my doorstep once in a while.

If you’re searching for your next favorite tale of society going horribly, horribly wrong, you’ve come to the right place.

First up on my reading list was J: a Novel by British author Howard Jacobson (Hogarth; 2014).  I found J to be an odd novel – or at least odd in my experience of reading dystopian fiction. Like most stories in this genre, the novel’s current society is far from perfect due to a catastrophic event in the not-so-distant past. However, rather than dwelling on the causal event, the novel merely refers to it as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.”  We don’t get much more than that – just enough to know there was extreme violence, bordering on extermination, of specific people (although the novel drops enough hints to figure it out, especially if you know more of Jacobson’s work). While this might be frustrating, especially if you expect the end to contain a “big reveal,” I think the pointed vagueness is quite intentional. Under the guidance of Ofnow, the “non-statuatory monitor of the public mood”, society itself has even forgotten – or refuses to remember – the horrific event. In fact, much of the novel dwells on what characters do and do not remember, or their search to contextualize the memories they have.

In this novel we meet protagonists Kevern “Coco” Cohen and Ailinn Solomons, two “aphids” (i.e. outsiders) living in the coastal village of Port Reuben. They meet and fall in love, though less coincidentally than they first think. Both of them show signs of paranoia against some unknown person or force – Kevern booby-traps his house against intruders, while Ailinn confesses to feeling stalked by a figure she refers to as “Ahab” (Moby Dick references abound). While we might think them a bit crazy in the beginning, segments of the novel narrated by secondary characters show that their fears are not completely unfounded. The novel uses several characters’ points of view to piece together Kevern and Ailinn’s ancestral histories, which are intertwined with the history of their society. Unsurprisingly for protagonists in this genre, they learn they are “destined”, in a sense, to influence their society’s future. Kevern and Ailinn’s reactions to this knowledge, however, were not what I expected.

Bleak. This is the adjective that most readily springs to mind to describe the world of J. It feels cold, tense, and fragile, as if violence could once again erupt at any moment. In fact, acts of violence do bubble up to the surface – Kevern spends a portion of the novel under investigation for the murder of a local woman whom he once kissed. But even kissing in this novel contains violence – the word more frequently used is “snogged,” which Kevern describes as a “brutish” form of kissing that breaks skin. Domestic violence is common, at least in Port Reuben. Like most dystopic societies, things seem to be rotting from within.

I left J with a sense of unease – unease that WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED would be easier to bring about than you’d think, and not only against the population targeted in this novel. Part of this unease is that WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED was brought about not by some totalitarian dictator à la Big Brother or President Snow, but by a mob mentality of the general public. Somehow this idea seems more realistic, and more chilling. Rather than just projecting the society’s ills on one evil mastermind, J forces us to question what we might be capable of.  What happens when we’re all complicit in the catastrophe?

Recommended reading if: You loved 1984 and/or are content with a little mystery.