The bad sex guide Who’s Sorry Now? Howard Jacobson 326pp, Jonathan Cape Who’d be a man, a woman or a child in a novel by Howard Jacobson? I didn’t notice any animals getting it in the neck (apart from an off-stage cat), but that must surely be an oversight, because Who’s Sorry Now? is, in its simplest form, an extended examination of unhappiness and misery. It has, by way of philosophical contortion, the added complication that some of its characters can only pursue happiness via unhappiness; others are merely hamstrung by breeding, intellect or disposition, skewered by circumstance and served up to fulfil their destiny. This is normal; a minor character who appears to have sneaked through with a modicum of contentment is, tellingly, named Dotty. On first glance, it all appears to be about sex, but of course it isn’t, or it isn’t only. Marvin Kreitman, a middle-aged man with too much tenderness to be called a rake, loves his mother, his wife, and his two daughters. Unfortunately for domestic harmony, he is also “in love” with five other women and, even worse, permanently open to further offers. “The woman didn’t exist before whom Kreitman wouldn’t, in the blinking of an eye, display his genitals,” we hear, although he’s not keen on undressing in front of men. His endless pursuit of pursuit, however, has less to do with sexual gratification than with the perpetuation of yearning. Kreitman is a man who cannot know happiness unless “he is suffering the pain of hope gone begging, of thwarted desire and of unbearable loss”. Quite why this should be so is, to put it mildly, overdetermined. Is it down to his dad, a humourless handbag merchant who shamed the boy Kreitman by openly filching keyfobs during warehouse sales? What about his mother, who envisaged for him a life in which he would never need to touch money on his flawless path to 10 Downing Street? (One of the novel’s best jokes comes when Kreitman thinks to reconcile these two demands by becoming chancellor of the exchequer. “See!” his mother cries, “There only has to be money on the floor and already you’re thinking small.”) Kreitman never makes it to Downing Street, but he does become the luggage baron of south London, “a reluctant tycoon” who turns his back on the academic life to root around in the “narrow openings and suede clefts” of purses and handbags, to tramp the aisles of trade fairs dazzled by the abundance of merchandise, to install his family in a five-storey Georgian house and to run around town in a chauffeur-driven Smart Car. This, too, represents a thwarted desire; still he dreams of the “Kultur”, but still he exists in a fever of acquisition. Kreitman is the novel’s centre and Jacobson’s most fretted-over creation, a character who can’t go two pages without another ruminative refinement, a tweaking here, a deepening there. But plot – and narrative generosity – demand that other characters have their day, and thus we encounter Kreitman’s best friend, Charlie, a man whose identity is so thoroughly wedded to his wife’s that they share both first name and joint authorship of a waningly successful series of children’s books, and whose diet and wardrobe is governed by deference to “Mrs Chassyboots”. But runny egg baps and baggy jumpers aside, Charlie is now tiring of “nice sex” – the novel’s two dirtiest words – and has a proposition for Kreitman. Their lives being so diametrically opposed, and his need for muckiness of an undreamt-of magnitude so crotch-achingly desperate, might they swap positions for a brief time? Might Kreitman assume stewardship of Mrs Charlie, and might Charlie then take his pick from Kreitman’s harem, in the name of friendship? Despite his sexual profligacy, which has its origins far more in the heart than in the trousers, Kreitman is nothing if not fastidious; they might not. But fate of a somewhat Shakespearean flavour intervenes, in the shape of a Lycra-suited courier who runs down a boozed-up Kreitman, and they do. Charlie takes up with Kreitman’s quietly enraged wife, Hazel, who starts their marriage as a floaty butterfly with a red parasol and ends up as a sharp-suited professional complainer, leaving Kreitman to seek solace in the lemon meringue pie of Mrs Charlie, or Chas. All the while, Nyman, the courier fated to play the lord of misrule, lurks in the background. Could what follows ever be described as a sexual comedy? Not really, because that would imply an admission of light-heartedness that simply doesn’t feature in the novel’s world, or for Jacobson, one suspects, in the world at all. Comedy, when it does come – and it comes brilliantly – is far likelier to exist at the level of outraged howls at the modern world, with which Kreitman finds himself at odds. His pet hates include touchy-feely fridge magnet culture, the word “cock” (”Use dick,” he says, “it’s more respectful”), faggots and their destabilising influence on heterosexual men, anoraks with writing on them, books with gerundival titles. Even food is impolitely sexualised for Kreitman, tormented by “two dry lamb chops with their legs in the air, like Soho pole-dancers”. Perhaps more than any other writer who presents us with the crappiness of our lives and the filthiness of our desires, Jacobson is relentlessly punitive; if we laugh, we must also cry. Accordingly, he makes Kreitman a labour of interpretation, a man who, despite the carnality of his impulses, has “never smiled before or after sex”, who makes moan instead of love, who is so uptight – a word he would loathe – about the unfettered flow of affection that even his cat must be rescued from him. Is there an element of special pleading here, alluded to by Chas when she remarks that “his body seems to think”? (”Haven’t we all always known what Kreitman’s dick was thinking?” comments un-dotty Dotty, dryly.) Is the entire novel, with its ready-to-wear aphorisms and bristling ironies, an apology for adulterers – male adulterers – whose response to the accusation of misogyny is that, on the contrary, they love women? Perhaps, but what gives Jacobson his edge is that he makes you wonder constantly whether to afford him the benefit of the doubt. He is, at the very least, a writer who talks about sex as if it isn’t all about putting that in there, nor as if its potency can be neutralised by a proper discussion about gender relations and power structures. In other words, sex for grown-ups, and writing for grown-ups. That’s why you can see in Jacobson the comic intelligence of David Lodge or Martin Amis, but why you also get the expansiveness of John Updike and Philip Roth. What you don’t get is comfort, or good grace. Also – and how often does this happen, nowadays? – there is the sense of a mind working, and working on other minds. Jacobson is among the most exhilaratingly intelligent of contemporary novelists, and probably the least likely to worry about crowd-pleasing. One of the mysteries of this novel is that Kreitman, the obsessional “archivist of himself”, the fraught self-interrogator shouldering a lifetime of complexes, isn’t on the analyst’s couch. But why would he need to be? He’s got Jacobson to do his dirty work for him.