No More Mister Nice Guy – Howard Jacobson
A television critic with a mid life crisis married to a radical feminist who writes erotic novels – a premise that made me smile with anticipation. Add this to the fact that the author is a 2010 Man Booker Prize winner for another novel – The Finkler question – the only humorous novel to win that prize in a long long time, and humongous praise in the back cover comparing him to Philip Roth (he apparently calls himself the Jewish Jane Austen) and Wodehouse (yeah!) for his dry wit and honest satirical skills – I obviously took the bait. Especially after the disaster that was the previous book I read.
Frank Ritz and Melissa Paul are the quintessential every-couple in their 50’s. At least they start out that way. Their jobs are interesting, not to say the least, but that was not what was dictating the dynamics of their married life. Sure, on a superficial level, the plot would seem to be driven by their offbeat professional lives, a lot of their interactions stem into ideas for Melissa’s books. But I felt these were just red herrings, meant to add cursory layers to a simple core story (with some exaggerated stretch of character) – the coming of age of a 50 year old man and a 50 year old woman as they move from one stage of their life to another, the battle of the sexes from the perspective of a hot headed couple going through their mid life crisis and turning up none the wiser.
Frank Ritz embodies the middle aged man’s displeasure with the next generation that has lost its sense of irony, the generation that wears what it means and means what it says. But then, he quickly follows the same thought with the existential confusion – “Or, are they altogether too ironical for him?” He is confused throughout the book – as clueless as I imagine every man to be (not in a feminist way, but in a patronizing mom-kind of way) and he still is confused at the end of the book after going through hell and more – oh, after going through ALL that he subjects himself to.
The author has a definite gift of the gab. Using a sentence as plain and prescriptive as “Beauty in a woman either has to have some boy in it or some baby” to describe this Swedish woman whose atmosphere Frank falls in love with – is beautiful and Wodehouse-ian. He is quick to dismiss shallow superficial features about her that attract other men. “What Frank likes best about the Swede was less specifically located. He liked what was between and around her“. That to me described the attitude of the author himself – none of the girls or the sex scenes he was describing in the book had any emotion whatsoever, it felt like more of a meta-clinical-inclusion that would have made Melissa proud – you know the kind of lines written in M&B’s but only unsanitized versions of those! The author was loyal to the intellectual reader as Frank was loyal to Melissa through all of his “adevntures”. Twisted, yes. But true, or so I felt!
The book, to me was just all about the war between man and woman and in this war between the sexes, Frank would take anything to resolve the differences and bridge the gap. When he quotes John Donne‘s metaphysical The Flea as his favorite lyrical poem (although in a slightly different context) – “Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,/And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be” – I don’t believe it was meant to be incidental at all. The evocation of John Donne – the satirical erotic poet – by itself, acts as a metaphor for what the book is all about, at some level. No?
As Frank descends deeper and deeper into his own recklessness (or, the opposite of compunction as he calls it) you know there is going to be some kind of absolution at the end. He is depressed at the thought of being depressed, that life makes him play snakes and ladders while letting others “shuffle the happy family deck”. So, you know he is going to get his epiphany sooner or later. The way it is given to him – that was the letdown for me in the book.
You would at least expect a poetic kind of inner-peace he attains at the end of his masochistic travels after his wife kicks him out because he is “too noisy and doesn’t shut up”. There is nothing of the sort, at least I did not get that feeling. He is as confused as ever, which is how I would expect him to be, but he knows that Melissa is confused as well and he is now ready to shut up (if he can) if only he can come back to the comfort of her presence – his version of the happy family deck he is dealt with.
Quick summary – I wasn’t completely disappointed. There was brilliance shining through in a lot of passages, it was definitely entertaining in its wit and intelligence. There were layers, some I could unearth, some not so clear. But I did think it was belaboring the point after a while. Especially towards the end, I could not wait for it to just end soon enough. I reserve my opinion of the author until I read The Finkler Question. I do see how he is capable of better work given a better plot – this one sounds too interesting in theory, but not so much in paperback!