The Book of Jonah, by Joshua Max Feldman
I know, I know: a one-star review can’t be trusted/balanced/objective, etc., as it’s obviously just a screed (or something like that). Believe it or not, though, I’ve put a lot of thought into this rating; despite my personal dislike of this book (all the more disappointing because I was rather excited to read it), I am reluctant to be harsh in rating and reviewing it. (Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age.) But the thing is, I think this book is a pretty big failure in its current form (which is an ARC, so the text may be subject to change), and to give it two stars would imply that it is successful in some small aspect. And, after reflection, I just don’t think it is.
On the back cover, this book calls itself a “brilliantly conceived retelling of the Bible’s book of Jonah”. And here is the big problem: this novel does not have the scope or depth or wisdom of an epic, biblical tale. Neither does it have the craft, character, or insight of a successful work of literary fiction. And it certainly doesn’t have the compelling plot or pace of popular fiction. So, really, where can it land? How can I give it a second star?
Much of the blame should rest on the editors, if there were any (I heard publishers are seriously cutting back on editing services). It’s easiest to demonstrate this by talking about the prose itself, which is where, in my opinion, The Book of Jonah falls most short of the “literary fiction” ideal. In the first 50 pages, there are at least 132 adverbs. In the last 50 pages, where one would typically expect an improvement in style, there are over 200 adverbs, all ending in the usual -ly. Ok, yes, I know, I’m some kind of neurotic to be counting adverbs (and I used one myself just now), but the point is that Feldman relies on them. His favorites are really, eventually, actually, immediately, probably, and finally; at least one of these shows up, like clockwork, on every page. Adverbs can, of course, be effectively deployed, but for the most part, their use in fiction means laziness, a lack of creativity, or redundancy. An example from The Book of Jonah: “At a crosswalk he had to leap — phone clutched tightly — over a massive puddle at a clogged storm drain.” As opposed to something being clutched loosely? Trust your verbs to communicate your meaning, and if they can’t be trusted, switch them out for better verbs or more vivid descriptions. Don’t just add lazy, obvious modifiers and call it good. (Please don’t add even stupider descriptions though, like this from pg. 12: “Patrick nodded, a pair of dips of his long head.” It seems Feldman thinks nodding is an obscure action, unknown to most humans, which must be explained to his audience.) So much for his prose. So much for his editors.
The weak writing could be overlooked, perhaps, if the characters or the story were compelling — if they were a fraction as compelling as the real story of Jonah. Alas, they are not. The main character, Jonah Jacobstein, is unlikeable in the beginning and throughout the middle of the book; in the last pages, he becomes less of a jerk and more of a personality-less sad sack. Judith, the other main character, is somewhat more interesting; her introduction was the single chapter I enjoyed. Unfortunately, her character development throughout the rest of the book is uneven and, towards the end, feels very rushed. She becomes not much more than a prop in Jonah’s character arc, which is funny because she accuses him of treating her as exactly that; the real problem is the author seems to treat her the same way. I wish her story had been given the time and detail it deserves, perhaps with Jonah appearing as a footnote. (Don’t get me started on the villain, a total caricature of a Big Bad Republican Businessman™ who pops in out of nowhere and disappears just as fast, not around long enough to make any impression whatsoever — which is why Judith’s big moment fizzles like a defective firework.)
And finally: the story. It’s pretty incredible how the biblical tale of Jonah fits more substance into 3 pages than The Book of Jonah manages in 333. I’m not being sly. I don’t mean that in the sense that the Bible is a holy book and therefore inherently of more consequence than this novel. I mean it honestly: I am actually amazed by how subtle and complex the real Jonah is, as portrayed in a few hundred words, in comparison to the flatness of Jonah Jacobstein and the ultimate mediocrity of his quest, as portrayed in 80,000 words (give or take). And I think this flatness — this smallness of soul — is the result of Feldman taking inspiration from a profound and dense tale and impoverishing its idea. Jacobstein’s visions are entirely vague in meaning. Nothing is really asked of him or communicated to him (God as a person is essentially removed from this “retelling”). He gets uncomfortable and thinks, Hey, maybe I shouldn’t be a cheater, a liar, a scumbag, a thief! And the reader thinks, You needed some bad-trip visions to tell you that? Deep, man, deep!
And this is basically this book’s deep thought: “It was God or it wasn’t”. Sure, it throws around words like “holy” and “faith” and even “sin” (once) but doesn’t seem to actually consider what these words mean, what these things are. I’m not asking the book to agree with me about what they are — not by any means! — I’m just asking it to consider them, to turn them over in its pages, to wrestle with these ideas and come away bloody and let me see it, to give me something new to think about, to let me see faith and faithfulness in another man so I can know them, and know myself .
So, er, this was a frustrating book. I found it aimless and poorly paced, insubstantial and incomplete. The prose was mediocre, in general, and below par for literary fiction (my gosh, the adverbs!). Jonah Jacobstein was unlikeable; Judith was wasted; the villain is a copy-paste job seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. A semi-serious subplot was left entirely unresolved (and not in the good way). The main part of the novel ends with 17 rhetorical questions. 17!
For a story claiming to be a retelling of a biblical epic, I’m afraid The Book of Jonah is a pretty facile affair.
Note: I was given a free review copy by the publisher.