Ian Sansom depicts the way of telling a tale of neither remotely funny nor an easy read of David Grossman
A comic novel by David Grossman, the David Grossman? That would be simply ludicrous, obviously: Grossman is a writer of such high moral seriousness and tone, a writer burdened and possessed with such profound weight, as to render that book quite impossible. It would be like Dan Brown writing art history, or Lydia Davis writing a romcom. So, a comic novel by Grossman: no. But a novel about a comic by Grossman? An unexpected delight. Readers should be warned, however: A Horse Walks into a Bar is neither remotely funny nor an easy read.
First, Grossman no longer writes what we traditionally think of as novels: he has transcended genre; or rather, he has descended deep into the vaults beneath. His previous book, 2014's Falling Out of Time, a deeply personal portrait of the loss of a son, was like a prose poem; more prophecy than novel. A Horse Walks into a Bar - again translated by Jessica Cohen, who has long proved herself capable of keeping up with Grossman's twists and turns of style - is more like a parable, about the loss of parents and the losses of a nation. As with all good parables, it requires the reader to do some work in order to understand its meaning.
Second, Grossman presents the reader with the difficulty of confronting and then coming to understand - and finally to love - the deeply offensive comedian who is at the centre of the story, Dovaleh Greenstein. Dovaleh - "Dovaleh G, ladies and gentlemen, AKA Dovchick" - takes to the mic in a small club in Netanya, Israel. Middle-aged, perilously thin, wearing ripped jeans, red braces and cowboy boots "adorned with silver sheriff stars", he starts telling bad jokes. Really bad jokes. He abuses the audience, refuses to humour them, and persuades them to join him in anti-Arab chants. He is a thoroughly appalling individual.
The audience soon becomes restive and hostile - including the book's narrator, retired district court justice Avishai Lazar, who has been invited to the show by Dovaleh, though at first it's not clear why. But all soon becomes apparent. To reveal anything more about the book's plot and purpose would be to spoil its shock and surprises. Suffice it to say that Dovaleh's show is a form of self-interrogation and a confession: he is, remarks the narrator, like "a little rodent gnawing on himself". Grossman does make a few concessions to the reader, who might - understandably - come looking for humor in a book about a comic.
He has Dovaleh respond to the hecklers with the kind of comebacks we've all heard from weary stand-ups. "Well good evening, Mister Tony Soprano decked out in lemon meringue. Welcome to our humble abode, and may you have a very crystal nacht. I understand you're in between medications at the moment, and just my luck, you had to choose this particular evening to get out for some fresh air!" But Grossman's true interests lie elsewhere: A Horse Walks into a Bar is not a book about standup comedy. It is a book about art, and the relationship of suffering to art. "I'm a bottom-feeder, am I not?" says Dovaleh.
"It's a pretty pathetic form of entertainment, let's be honest." Through the character of Avishai, the judge, it's also a book about our role as spectators and participants, about what it means to be part of an audience. "How did he do that? I wonder. How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul? And into his hostages?"
Dovaleh is clearly a representative figure, yet the conclusions we are encouraged to draw from his telling of his terrible stories is unclear. This isn't just a book about Israel: it's about people and societies horribly malfunctioning. Sometimes we can only apprehend these truths through story - and Grossman, like Dovaleh, has become a master of the truth-telling tale. "What is he selling them?" wonders the judge. "What is he selling himself?" These are important questions at this moment in history, a time of trickery and lies. This is a novel for our new Age of Offence - offence easily taken and endlessly performed.
The reviewer is an author, critic and contributor to The Guardian The write-up has appeared at www.theguardian.com
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