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.
The American comic book was born as the world readied for war — DC’s Superman debuted in 1938, while Marvel’s first came in 1939, just hours before Hitler invaded Poland. In Sean Howe’s vivid account, comics truly came of age as an art form after the war, and after weathering congressional condemnation and dire warnings of their role in forming juvenile delinquents, as the baby boomers came of age and an art director named Stan Lee assembled a team of artists who gave us Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and others. While DC’s heroes were elegant and iconic, Marvel’s were angst-ridden and intense, bound together in a universe of self-referential storylines and deep mythologies. Marvel was the countercultural upstart, and it increasingly fell into step with the political and artistic zeitgeist. With its hip, modern storytelling and cutting-edge art — with “nods to Salvador Dali, Eadweard Muybridge, Richard Avedon, and the films of Robert Siodmak and Michael Curtiz” — Marvel appealed to college-aged readers who were preoccupied with war, civil unrest, paranoia, and psychedelia.
After the riveting, rollicking energy in the first section, comics from the ’70s to the late ’90s seem a little wan, although children of the ’80s will enjoy reading about characters in “shoulder pads, turned-up collars, jumpsuits, and Jheri curls.” Marvel rose again, this time with lucrative movie versions of Spider-Man, X-Men, and others (all that money set off a flood of lawsuits as the artists hoped to be rewarded for their creative work). Movies and merchandising may bring in more cash, but comics have proven an enduring art form, gaining new fans without losing the old ones. Howe’s exhaustively researched love letter to Marvel should find grateful readers among both groups.
Making friends was easy in first grade, when, as Julie Klam recalls, “kids were friendly unless you bit them.” But as we grow into adulthood, many of us find friendship more difficult and confusing, complicated by grown-up issues like spouses, children, and competition. Klam argues that, as tough as it can be at times, there’s nothing more valuable than finding and maintaining close friends. After all, she writes, you can’t really be your own true grown-up self with your family, for good reason: “they still think you sleep with a night-light on.”
Klam writes with intimacy and goofy humor — her list of misbegotten couples includes examples such as “your friend’s a vegan and she’s dating a hunter, or your friend is a snowman and he’s dating a grill chef” — and fans of her earlier work will find much to enjoy here. Unlike a book one may like while disliking its author (think of Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot), this seems like a pure transfusion of personality to page, but one wishes at times for more depth, a longer heart-to-heart, to go along with the laughs.
By Howard Jacobson
Bloomsbury, 376 pp., $26
MARVEL COMICS: The Untold Story
By Sean Howe
Harper, 485 pp., $26.99
FRIENDKEEPING: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can’t Live Without
By Julie Klam
Riverhead, 224 pp, $25.95
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.