Thinking pop culture

Thinking pop culture

Wanking and writing and writing and wanking

Zoo Time - by Howard Jacobson (2012)

Writers, feminists, academics, social commentators. Each stir up varying degrees of loathing, mockery and complete and utter frustration in me.

The irony and hypocrisy does not evade me.

Depending on the day, writer/feminist/academic/social commentator is the label I’ll receive or use to describe myself.

And because I write, of course, I’m nursing issues with self-loathing and jealousy and misanthropy and arrogance.

And this is exactly what Zoo Time is about. Guy is trying to write a novel about a novelist. (Apparently a sign that things truly have gone to literary shit). In Guy’s world, all writers - himself spectacularly included - are secretive and horrible and narcissistic and grotesquely neurotic.

And even if, in real life, we’re not like that all of the time, I’ll happily embrace a professional excuse for my quirks.

It’s when Zoo Time is at its hysterical and hyperbolic best that I was most enraptured.

In Guy’s world, publishers and agents blow their brains out; disappear from mountaintops without a trace. So dire is the industry. I have, quite literally, had the editor I was assigned at a publishing house go missing. Missing. Without a trace. One day he was buying me lunch in New Haven and the next his emails were bouncing and I was assigned a replacement. And he was never ever mentioned again.

In Guy’s world, writers are constipated; so much so that industry magazines devote pages to exploring remedies. Years ago I was in a relationship with a writer so very preoccupied with his bowels – so bizarrely fetishistic about undergoing colonoscopies – that he made the crackpots in Zoo Time look gastrically sane.

When Guy reflects on some of the least satisfying aspects of his marriage - musing “Only a writer or pervert would put up with this” - I knew, to my very marrow - that he’s right. Much much worse, I knew that he was describing me.

There’s so much to love about Zoo Time. A favourite theme is the idea of writing being so like wanking. Not a new idea of course.

In my book Part-Time Perverts I quoted literary theorist Lawrence R. Schehr who had a wonderful analogy about this:

He moves one hand along a somewhat cylindrical object until a liquid is released. No one is there to receive the liquid; the dried traces of that liquid may or may not be noticed at a subsequent point as tell-tale signs of the activity…

Jacobson offered his own description involving pens being dipped in semen.

Both descriptions are more suited to male masturbation than female, sure, but the link is perfect.

Masturbation and writing can both be so bloody self-indulgent. And insular. And pleasurable. And isolating. And wonderful and horrible and arousing and…

Even the bits of the Zoo Time that felt repetitive felt repetitive for a reason. Masturbation often follows exactly the same course - to the exact same ends - too. Over and over again. And yet done right and it can be awfully splendid.

I’m going to dub it my favourite release of 2012. I’ve yet to settle on the criteria used to judge this, but any book that both claims writing is a wank and yet is as beautifully written, thought-provoking and zanily reassuring as Zoo Time gets my vote.

Howard Jacobson reading from the beginning of Zoo Time.

P.S. My 7-part Summer radio show - “The Fairer Sex” - starts on Wednesday the 19th of December on 3RRR (102.7) in Melbourne at 7pm. Podcast available after the show. Tune in!