‘Pussy’ Or Bust?

Forward Magazine - - News - By Liam Hoare

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.

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