“Surviving Us” by Howard Jacobson is a thought-provoking play that relies solely on dialogue to create its dramatic impact.
Alan Coren was requested by Jeffrey Archer to give a quote for his latest book, despite Coren not being a fan. In response, Coren came up with the humorous line “Fans of Jeffrey Archer will not be disappointed.” This joke is effective because it holds a kernel of truth. There are certain writers who have a loyal readership that will follow them no matter what, drawn in by their unique perspective and writing style. This loyalty can act as a barrier, keeping dedicated fans within the fold while simultaneously deterring those who are uninterested in their work.
Howard Jacobson is an accomplished writer who has been producing novels for over forty years. His works explore a wide range of topics, from a struggling academic in “Coming from Behind” (1983) to a coming-of-age tale with a unique twist involving ping-pong in “The Mighty Walzer” (1999) to themes of Jewish identity and mortality in his 2010 Booker Prize-winning novel, “The Finkler Question.” What ties all of his works together is the dynamic and original writing style, showcasing his mastery of language.
The writing style propels the story forward even when the plot becomes unfocused (which happens frequently): in The Making of Henry (2004), the first 50 pages were so engaging and humorous that it took me another 100 pages to realize the story lacked direction. By then, I was already immersed in Jacobson’s world and there was – and still is – no way to escape it.
Beneath the surface of these works, certain themes prevail: longing and romantic love, along with their humiliations, twists, and disputes, typically portrayed through a middle-aged male character who is equal parts humorous, despondent, and lustful. This is evident in No More Mr Nice Guy (1998), which is the only novel to ever make me laugh until I cried, as well as in Who’s Sorry Now? (2002), which features swapping of wives, and in The Act of Love (2008), which presents the notion – unfamiliar to those who have not pondered these matters as much as Jacobson has – that “no man has ever truly loved a woman without imagining her in the arms of another.”
The author is back with his 17th novel, titled What Will Survive of Us, which is inspired by a line from Larkin. The story revolves around an affair between two people in their forties, Lily and Sam, who are both married to other people. The novel opens with a dramatic “Kerpow!” as Sam, a playwright with disheveled hair and lazy eyes, meets Lily, a documentary maker, through work. The rest of the book delves into the reasons that keep them together.
Sam creates plays centered around men who are known for their struggles, but in Jacobson’s world, all men face their own troubles. The novel shifts between the perspectives of Sam and Lily, but Sam seems most comfortable exploring the thoughts of men. In this world, men are easy to understand and their inner thoughts are consistent, while women are portrayed as more sensible. Lily’s friend warns her that if they don’t show some understanding towards men’s dishonesty, they will ultimately end up alone.
The book follows a meandering path, jumping from clever sayings to witty dialogue and back, making it an enjoyable read. Occasionally, the reader may pause and wonder where the story is heading, as it seems that the author, Jacobson, either does not care about or has moved beyond traditional plot structures. However, there are still developments in the story: time passes, Sam and Lily grow older, and their relationship takes unexpected turns. At one point, Sam asks Lily to hit him during sex, reminiscent of Marianne and Connell’s dynamic in Normal People. In the next moment, they are exploring fetish clubs, places where tired London taxi drivers show off their wives’ piercings.
Beneath the surface, there is a sense of excitement: if Lily manages to break free from Hal and Sam leaves Selena (as the tension between them rises), “what will they do with the time they used to spend avoiding and deceiving?” While there are potential for intense scenes, Jacobson’s signature style focuses on internal struggles and the dialogue carries all the drama. The conversations on male friendship and choosing not to have children are brilliantly truthful. So, yes, it’s another story about love and sex, about the dynamics between men and women, from the expert in his field. However, by the end, it evolves into something more nuanced and bittersweet than anticipated. Fans of Howard Jacobson will not be disappointed in the best way possible.
“What Will Survive of Us” is a book written by Howard Jacobson and published by Jonathan Cape for £20. If you would like to support the Guardian and Observer, you can order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional delivery fees may apply.