Novelist Guy Abelman, protagonist of Howard Jacobson’s new novel, has a woman problem, actually several. One is that women hate his books (we first meet him at a reading group, where one asks, “Why do you hate women so much?”). Despite this — and a hefty dose of literary misogyny — he loves women, especially his wife and mother-in-law. A pair of Titian-haired beauties with a history of sexual competitiveness, Vanessa and Poppy excite, confuse, and bedevil Guy in equal measure. Naturally, he decides to write a novel in which his fictional stand-in has an affair with his mother-in-law.
For a comic novel, “Zoo Time” is awfully grumpy. Not for nothing is Jacobson so frequently compared to Philip Roth. Some scenes from Guy and Vanessa’s marriage will make readers wince (Guy says of his wife, “she had to rage the way a sunflower had to turn its head”); even worse are those between Guy and his agent, who is understandably weary of a client whose last book was reviewed as “[a] novel that subtly enacts its own futility.” Guy rails against contemporary publishing and the enduringly cutthroat literary scene (“all writers smell of envy,” he remarks). It only gets worse when Vanessa finishes her own novel. Questions of religion and politics that animated Jacobson’s Man Booker Prize-winning “The Finkler Question” are mostly absent here, but toward the book’s end Guy finds himself pondering similar ideas of forgiveness, redemption, and goodness.