‘Pussy’ Or Bust?
Booker Prize- winning novelist Howard Jacobson takes on our groper-in- chief.
PUSSY By Howard Jacobson Random House 208 pages, $22.95
‘Ikeep being told by people that I’m becoming a bit of a ranter,” Howard Jacobson warned me about halfway into our conversation. We were sitting, having tea, in the main room of his London apartment, which is framed at one end by floor-to-ceiling windows, as an appropriately ominous black sky rolled toward us. Jacobson had hoped that his latest novel, “Pussy” — a satire of and fantasia on the rise of Donald Trump — had got the worst of it out of his system, but evidently not. “Wherever I go now,” he said, “I rant. It’s a bad sign.”
Part of the problem is that Jacobson has been without a column for over a year now. The Independent, his home
for almost 20 years, where he was a fixture of the Saturday edition, went out of print March 26, 2016. It continues in a denuded form online, absent of Jacobson.
“It was bliss for a few months” to be without it, Jacobson told me, “and then, slowly but surely, I began to miss it. I thought, this is one of the most momentous years I can remember and I’ve got no column.” During our interview, I was his audience for many opinions I sensed may have developed into columns, given half the chance.
On democracy: “You can’t have democracy and also believe in the people. The people are fickle and uneducated.” On the state of England: “I’m amazed people are not more dissatisfied than they are. The Sunday Times publishes a rich list and I’m surprised there isn’t a revolution the next day.” On safe spaces: “If we’re going to do ‘offended,’ let me tell you what’s like to be a Jew wandering through an English village and seeing a church.” On reading habits: “Total tosh. The stuff that’s being read and enthused over makes me feel apocalyptic about literature.” On the popularity of literary festivals: “That’s because it saves them reading. It’s reading on the cheap.”
And on Donald Trump: “He’s ludicrous. He’s a totally ludicrous person. I’ve never seen such a ludicrous person anywhere ever.”
But “Pussy,” it must be said, though laced with a certain political fury, is far from a rant: poised, controlled and yet appropriately mirthful in the face of something so absurd. As the title — one so pornographic, I don’t think I managed to utter it once — suggests, “Pussy” is the first novel of and for our new epoch. It is a satire that asks what exactly the Donald Trump phenomenon was and how it was possible that such an obviously unimpressive, unlettered and untruthful man could emerge and capture the imagination and votes of millions.
Set within the walled Republic of Urbs- Ludus, with its obelisks and ziggurats, casinos and palaces with golden gates, “Pussy” is of another world but very much about our
own. It is a fable, a fairy story, in the manner of “Candide” or Samuel Johnson’s “Rasselas” — the story of Prince Fracassus, heir presumptive to the Duchy of Origen, who “was not only short of words, he seemed to be in a sort of war with them.” He is lazy and crass, vulgar and impatient, displays no curiosity and possesses no knowledge — and is proud of it, too — yet by tale’s end he is able to become the man who might very well make the republic great again.
On election night, Jacobson went to sleep while the votes were still being counted in America. “I woke in the middle of the night. My wife woke with me and we just didn’t like the way we’d woken up. There was a goblin on my chest. I said to her, ‘I don’t think I’ve got the courage.’” Nonetheless, he turned on the radio to hear what few had thought possible. “The following morning,” Jacobson said, “I started writing.”
“Why the fascination? That’s what I couldn’t get. Why am I watching this man?” he wondered. “There is nothing here. It’s the power of nothing. And then, more and more, I got fascinated by the words. How many more rallies could he give with so few words? How long can you talk with so few words? There’s nothing there and yet I’m looking at something.” Out of these questions came “Pussy.”
It was written very quickly, in a kind of instinctive and very passionate white heat. For six weeks, Jacobson didn’t leave the house and was at his desk every morning at 6. Forty thousand words later, it was done. “I didn’t pause and I barely corrected,” he said, breaking with his usual fastidiousness. “It had to feel rough. It had to feel rushed. I wanted to coincide with what other people were feeling.”
“Pussy,” therefore, is not a historical novel akin to Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” or a fantastical study of character and evil like Norman Mailer’s final novel, “The Castle In The Forest.” It is very much a fable, a sketch, and it never occurred to Jacobson that it could be otherwise.
Jacobson, above all, is interested in Trump as a linguistic phenomenon. Fracassus, according to an early report on him in the novel, is “unhampered by that dependence on received opinion, which we often see to be the price paid by those who are overly articulate, language-crammed or well read,” for “the more disengaged from language a man is, the more connected to his own heart we can rely on him to be.” The perception that Fracassus somehow true because he is disconnected from truth is what enables him to connect with the people.
From Trump to Brexit to Corbyn, sincerity, Jacobson tells me, is the cliche of our time. “This is one political event that writers cannot shrug off and say it’s not our business. This is our business. This is the very thing that we do. We believe in language because we believe truth is only reached through language.” Trump, meanwhile, can never “find his way to meaning, because he hasn’t got the words to find his way to meaning.”
“His speech rhythms are interesting,” he said. Trump “circles around, repeats things, and changes the volume of his voice to make it sound as though there’s movement, because he somehow seems to know oratorically there should be something like movement — but there is no movement, and if there is no movement, there’s no progression of thought, and when there’s no progression of thought, you’re imprisoned and the few opinions you do have — they’re not even judgments, they’re just impetuses, urges — you’re bound around them and you’ve got no way out.”
Whether or not political satire does any good is something the author has asked himself. Initially, he was just writing “Pussy” for himself, to get it down on paper. Now, however, he sees it as part of the essential anti-normalization effort against this president.
“Is it ever too late?” he asked me. “It might be too late to change anything, but is it too late just for history? Is it too late for the climate of things? You never know what you achieve. It should never stop, and people say get over it: No. Why should one get over it?” There should be, Jacobson says, a stream of rage turned upon those, whether it be Trump or the Brexiteers “who told us lies and got us into this. Whatever it changes, it’s just good that it’s there. Those of us that write and make art should deride.” May “Pussy,” then, be the first satire and not the last.