A novelization of The Merchant of Venice set in contemporary England touches on foreskins, art collectors, athletes, and troublesome daughters.
This is Man Booker Prize winner Jacobson’s (J, 2014, etc.) contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series in which writers are asked to reimagine one of the plays. He opens in a cemetery where a wealthy Jewish art collector named Strulovitch is visiting his late mother and pondering the latest misadventure of his teenage daughter, Beatrice. Nearby, reading to his buried wife from Portnoy’s Complaint, stands Shylock, transported (by Tardis?) from a script written under Elizabeth I to pages in the reign of QE II. The father of the play’s rebellious Jessica agrees to be a houseguest of Strulovitch, which allows the men to wax angry and eloquent on obstreperous offspring, anti-Semitism, and, ultimately, what penalty one can exact from the randy Christian jock with whom Beatrice has run off. Playing Antonio and middleman between father and daughter is an obnoxious aesthete named D’Anton with whom Strulovitch has clashed over a Jewish art museum. D’Anton’s partner in crude anti-Semitism is an inane version of Portia as wealthy socialite with a TV show in which she serves food and renders Judge Judy–type dispute resolutions. The legal gotcha here is supplied by Shylock, as both adviser and doppelgänger to Strulovitch, who is pondering a different pound of flesh. The Merchant is well-suited to Jacobson, a Philip Roth–like British writer known for his sterling prose and Jewish themes. It’s hard to say whether his novel stands well on its own, as the play permeates it with quotes, characters, allusions, plot elements, and that touch of magical realism that imports every pound of Shylock in the fictional flesh.
The book is also full of the facile asides and riffs for which Jacobson has been praised and spanked—comic patter that pales amid the fine, thoughtful talk when his two heroes hold forth in this uneven effort.