The Mother-in-Law Joke

By Stan Persky | February 27, 2013

Howard Jacobson, Zoo Time (2012).

Stephen Marche, “The Golden Age for Writers…is right now.” (Esquire, Dec. 2012).


The Canadian novelist and culture columnist, Stephen Marche, solemnly assures us that “we’re living in a golden age for writers and writing.” Whew! And just lately I’d been mistakenly thinking that serious reading is in big trouble, publishing is a train wreck, and professional book reviewing has entered a terminal stage of atrophy. Thankfully, I’m dead wrong. Anyway, as Marche gently points out, writers (like me) “have always been whiners… Literary circles have been so full of [self-] pity for so long that they can’t accept the optimistic truth” about the present “golden age.”

I now suspect that I acquired my erroneous view that book reading is in decline because I teach university students. I noticed that the students in my classes were deeply interested in texting on their smartphones, incessantly listening to iPod-provided soundtracks, and using their computers, tablets and other devices to update their Facebook status, watch YouTube, shop online, and play video games. I haven’t noticed them reading books much, in either codex or electronic forms. When I surveyed them during the recent vampire craze, it turned out that they hadn’t even read the Stephenie Meyer vampire novels, they’d only seen the Twilight movies.

Little did I realize that my students, like other North Americans, are reading, on average, 17 books a year. Seventeen! Who knew? Marche buttresses his Golden Age case, in addition to a welter of statistics, graphs and charts, by pointing out that the author of the Harry Potter novels is richer than the Queen of England, that the pop social novelist Tom Wolfe is worth more than Dickens, and the writer of 50 Shades of Grey has made more money than all other soft-core pornographers laid end-to-end. Apparently author earnings are, for Marche, a major criterion in the Golden Age sweepstakes. Oh yeah, 2012 books sales in dollars are also up over the previous year.

It’s not just novels and other books. Essays in magazines, too. They’re better than ever. So are the magazines: “With a few notable exceptions, almost every magazine in the world is in its best shape ever, right now,” burbles Marche. The reason? “Good old-fashioned competition — from the Internet and the expanding marketplace — has forced them to improve… Finding great writing — and getting stories in front of eyeballs — has never been easier.” Clearly, we’re living in the best of all possible literary worlds. Free enterprise works! How satisfying to know that when I recommend a great magazine like the New York Review of Books to my students, they immediately rush off to the great digital library-cloud in the sky, just a screen-touch away. (The only thing I don’t quite understand is why the NYR doesn’t have millions of readers, instead of the same sluggish 132,000 subscribers they’ve had for the last 50 years. Oh, well.)

Of all the Stephen Marche-provided factoids, I was most thrilled to learn about those 17 books that average readers (including my awesome students) are consuming annually. I should, in the name of eyeball accuracy, add that Pew Research Centre (from whom Marche derives his stats) isn’t saying that everybody reads 17 books; actually the “median” number is 8. (I.e., half the readers and non-readers surveyed read 8 or less, half read 8 or more.) Naturally, the stats don’t say which books they’re reading, because to do so might be considered judgmental (“judgmental” is currently a no-no). However, those of us reading more books make up for those reading less. So, if I read 68 books a year, that makes up for three students reading no books at all a year, and the average for the four of us is 17, while the median, if you leave me out of it completely (please do), is zero, as in Coke Zero.

Gee, this stat stuff is downright malleable, but I’m sure the surge in reading will soon be followed by increases in all the other areas that are allegedly in decline: student knowledge of history, geography, science, civics, art, you-name-it, as well as reading and writing competence. True, all of these “knowledge deficits,” as detailed in Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (2008) and similar books, have yet to show much improvement, but it’s just a matter of time. Yes, buoyed up by the ebullient Bon Marche, I’m all set to join him in declaring that “a massive process of literary rebirth is under way.” Hey, iRenaissance! No sense in letting a few literary sourpusses spoil the golden age.


Guy Abelman is one of those whining sourpusses. He thinks Stephen Marche (or people like Stephen Marche) is a ninny. He also thinks Marche is a moron, a village idiot, a “useful idiot” for capitalist propaganda, or some kind of idiot… but that’s because Guy tends to go on and on once you’ve got him started.

Guy (or Guido, to use his wife Vanessa’s not totally fond pet name for him) is a mid-list (i.e., failing) novelist, the author, some years back, of Who Gives a Monkey’s? (as in, “Who gives a monkey’s fook?”, as they pronounce it in England) and successively lesser works, and he’s the main character in Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time. In case you haven’t heard much about Jacobson, he’s the Booker Prize-winning British-Jewish comic novelist who got the prize for The Finkler Question (2010), and who, until he won the Booker, was best known for being a prominent “neglected” comic novelist.

Did I mention that Guy’s got a thing for his mother-in-law, Poppy? That’s the semi-intentionally bad, cringe-making, running dirty joke from which Jacobson hangs a lot of the plot: “Take my mother-in-law… I’ve just had her,” Guy imagines a stand-up comedian quipping at a Yuk-Yuks-type comedy club. Guy’s been lusting for Poppy ever since the red-headed mother-in-law-to-be and daughter team, more like sisters really, first popped into Guy’s mother’s high end women’s boutique, which Guy was temporarily managing until his younger brother Jeff could take it over, in a small town near Chester in northern England. Once released from the schmatte trade, Guy, whose former girlfriend worked in a zoo and gave him the inspiration for the Monkey book, could go off and become a famous Henry Millerish-type novelist, marry Vanessa, also an aspiring writer, and lust after Vanessa’s mother, Poppy. Got all that? (By the by, Zoo Time contains, I think, quite a few northern England jokes that went over my head; I’m so fuzzy on British geography that I had to google Chester to find out it’s south of Liverpool and Manchester.) There’s lots more plot. Brain tumours, bi-sexual brothers, demented dying parents, a trip to the Australian outback, a movie director in a yacht, a professional book blurbist known as Eric the Endorser (“I laughed till I cried, then I cried till I laughed”), lots of literary shindigs, and even an Ernest Hemingway look-alike, in reality a homeless slightly bonkers chap forever scribbling in notebooks.

Beneath all this perfectly entertaining fluff, the real theme of Zoo Time, or The Mother-in-Law Joke, as I think of it, since it’s the working title of Guy’s currently not-going-very-well and ultimately unpublishable manuscript, is that Guy is a writer living in a post-literate world where readers are rapidly disappearing, publishers are blowing their brains out, and agents are dying in distant climes, pace Stephen Marche’s Golden Age.

Or as Guy puts it, “Things had not been going well in my neck of the woods: not for me, on account of being a writer whose characters readers didn’t identify with… not for my local library which closed only a week after I’d published a florid article in the London Evening Standard praising its principled refusal to offer Internet access, and not for my publisher Merton Flak who, following a drunken lunch in my company — I had been the one doing the drinking — went back to his office and shot himself in the mouth.”

The fact that Merton “had a gun in his filing cabinet at least proved he must already have been thinking about doing away with himself,” so at least drunken Guy wasn’t completely responsible for Merton’s demise. “Nor did I think I was wholly to blame for the crisis in publishing, the devaluation of the book as object, the disappearance of the word as the book’s medium, library closures, Oxfam, Amazon, eBooks, iPads, Oprah, apps, Richard and Judy, Facebook, Formspring, Yelp, three-for-two, the graphic novel, Kindle, vampirism — all of which the head of marketing at Scylla and Charybidis Press mentioned in her eulogy (with some embarrassment, I thought, since she herself… blogged regularly on weRead) as contributory to poor Merton’s taking the drastic step he had. ” Once Guy gets on a roll, he’s hard to slow down. For those not keeping up with these things, “Richard and Judy” is an English TV book show, “three-for-two” is a sales gimmick at some bookstores, Scylla and Charybidis is Guy’s aptly-named publisher for perilous times, and while you know about Facebook, “Formspring,” “Yelp” and “weRead” are other Internet sites that may or may not have something to do with books. I just googled “weRead,” which I’d never heard of, and learned that it’s sort of like the wildly popular “” in North America, one of those sites where amateur reviewers invariably give four and five-star ratings to books, and supply, free of charge, reviews that are gradually driving professional book reviewers out of business . (By the way, Zoo Time gets only three stars on “goodreads,” which is the equivalent of a recommendation to pulp the whole edition.) Oh, and “Oxfam” refers to the second-hand bookstore in the town of Chipping Norton where Guy got arrested for trying to pinch a copy of one of his own books in a misguided attempt to protest against authors being deprived of secondary royalties or somesuch. Granted, Zoo Time is pretty convoluted, but you’re now more or less up-to-speed.

At which point, Vanessa, “mysterious and beautiful in black lace” at Merton’s funeral, whispers to Guy, “I suppose you think all this has got something to do with you.” Guy shrugs through his tears. “Of course, I thought it had something to do with me. I thought everything had something to do with me. I was a first-person person by profession… A writer such as I am feels he’s been away from the first person for too long if a third-person narrative goes on for more than two paragraphs.” Some of the reader-reviewers on said they had trouble identifying with Guy or any other of Jacobson’s characters.

Well, I thought Jacobson’s Zoo Time (I still would have preferred it being called The Mother-in-Law Joke) pretty funny. I liked it, partly I guess, because novels about novelists are one of my favourite fictional sub-genres (I also like poems about poetry and, since I teach, campus novels too). What’s more, I thought it was largely accurate: not necessarily about lusting after mothers-in-law, but about disappearing readers and cultural decline. The last good novel about novelists that I read was Martin Amis’s The Information (1995; 3.6 stars on www.goodreads — do you suppose that including the star-ratings on books will become a bibliographic requirement for students?). The professional critics hated The Information. They didn’t like Jacobson’s Zoo Time much better.

The Guardian wished that Jacobson “would rant a little less” and said that the distinctive feel of his work is “like being trapped in a confined space with a particularly garrulous pervert.” The Observer thought Zoo Time is “little more than a thinly veiled tantrum about the reduced status of novelists.” Jacobson’s “hobbyhorse outrides his interest in storytelling and the narrative becomes cluttered with explicit statements on the plight of serious writers… Since Zoo Time deals with character, setting and plot in an entirely cursory way, you can only really engage with it as a piece of rhetoric.”

Even the Independent, which liked the book well enough (“With fifty shades of atrocious writing constipating our bookshops… one can understand Jacobson’s lament”), conceded that it “is less a novel than a proclamation,” and wished that it “had been written as a non-fiction comical treatise rather than fiction, which frankly demands more story.” The New York Times complained that “very little happens” in Zoo Time because, as Guy says, and apparently Jacobson also believes, “only a moron could be interested in plot.” Worse, the book is also “thin on characterization: while the narrator certainly qualifies as a full-blooded individual, his companions are cartoons.” In the end, it “isn’t really a novel but an extended rant: outlandish, fuelled by rage, very much like a brilliant comic standup routine, except that it goes on for almost 400 pages.”

Gee, that’s pretty close to a critical consensus, I guess. Whereas, I thought Jacobson’s insouciant treatment of plot, characters and setting struck exactly the right tone for a comic novel. Echoes of early Evelyn Waugh, late Kingsley Amis. In fact, my only mild criticism of Zoo Time is that I thought it should be more of a rant, tantrum, proclamation. Not a “non-fiction comical treatise,” as the Independent suggested, but stuffed with more fictional rant scenes.

For example, there could be a hilarious encounter between Guy and the Panglossian Stephen Marche, an obviously fictional character-in-waiting (even though he comes pretty close to the “you can’t make this up” category). They could be standing outside a newly-closed indie bookstore discussing the Guardian’s “Decline in independent bookshops continues with 73 closures in 2012” article (Feb. 22, 2013), and Bon Marche could explain to Guy why it’s really a good thing for bookstores to close in the Golden Age of Reading and Writing — something about how they’re not really closures but a shift to “more appropriate distribution modes in a healthily competitive market place.” Or, Guy could come to the university and meet my book-reading and non-book-reading students as he gave a stand-up guest lecture in one of my classes. The possibilities are almost endless.

Eventually, it all ends happily. Demented parents pop off; polymorphous brother Jeff either is or isn’t afflicted with a brain tumour; Vanessa, long-stifled by Guy’s suffocating self-obsessed presence, conquers her writing block, pens her novel, goes off with the yacht-owning movie director, and is soon attending the premiere of the film version of her book. Even Guy wises up, adopts the pen-name Guido Cretino, and writes The Good Woman, The Good Daughter, The Good Mother-in-Law and other best-selling works of women’s fiction. Which goes to show that even in the Golden Age of Writing, some of us (to paraphrase St. Paul) have tin ears and speak with tongues of clanging brass. 


Berlin, February 27, 2013.








  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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