It hardly seems fair that Americans must wait to grab a copy of Howard Jacobson’s new novel, “Pussy.”
But let’s not get started on Things About Donald Trump That Are Unfair, or we’ll be here all week.
Jacobson, the Man Booker Prize-winning author of “The Finkler Question,” started writing this ribald satire just hours after Trump won the presidential election, and within a few weeks his manuscript was already rushing to print. His fellow Brits got the book two weeks ago, but those of us enduring the American carnage firsthand must wait till early May. An extremely credible source tells me this is unpresidented!!!
Nevertheless, someone — no, not Susan Rice — sent me an early copy of “Pussy,” and I moved on it like a b----. When you’re a book critic, they let you do it. You can do anything (except quote the president’s unfiltered words in a family newspaper).
This pairing of author and subject sounds divinely ordained: The world’s smartest comic novelist vs. a TV reality star who ran for president while bragging about his genitals and threatening to lock up his opponent. Yet it’s impossible to imagine a victim more immune to satiric injury. Having shot so many arrows into his own bloated corpus, Trump leaves little room for a fresh point. And unless someone reads passages of this novel aloud on Fox News, the president and his fans will never hear of it. As Howard Jacobson correctly pointed out to the Guardian, “ ‘Pussy’ isn’t going to persuade anyone who’s already persuaded otherwise.”
But for nasty women and their ilk, this is hot revenge in print (and Chris Riddell’s illustrations, starting with that irresistible cover, are brilliant). The story — a kind of grotesque fairy tale — takes place in the walled Republic of Urbs-Ludus, whose citizens adore giant hotels and “fantastical coiffure.” The republic’s favorite blog is Brightstar, “a platform for nativist, homophobic, conspirationist, anti-mongrelist ethno-nationalism.” (Most of the book’s targets are no more heavily disguised than this allusion to Steve Bannon’s far-right Breitbart News.)
All seems prosperous in the “Game Economy,” but there’s trouble a-brewing; the Grand Duke and Duchess are concerned: Their second son and heir presumptive, Fracassus, is not developing into the leader they had hoped. At 15, he does nothing but watch porn and game shows, though he also adores images of himself. “Whatever featured boastful winners and cringing losers, he watched with avidity,” Jacobson writes. His vocabulary is limited to a trio of obscene terms that he shouts at anyone he deems inferior — which is to say, everyone. “Fracassus was not only short of words, he seemed to be in a sort of war with them,” Jacobson writes. The court physician reports that Fracassus has “Tourette’s, only without the Tourette’s.” What’s worse, the young man has no interest in changing. “He believed himself to be complete. Ineducable because there was nothing more he would need to know.”
For Jacobson, that incurious mind is a capital crime, and it quickly becomes the target of this slim, raucous novel. Realizing they have “nurtured a brute,” the Duke and Duchess call for a new tutor to help Fracassus “learn to conceal the indifference he feels towards everybody but himself.” The man they hire is Kolskeggur Probrius, a cynical professor of phonoethics who studies the relationship between language and ethical thinking. Alas, enlightening Fracassus is a job beyond the professor’s skill set, probably beyond anyone’s skill set.
But watching this disaster in motion provides some amusing moments. On his 18th birthday, for instance, Fracassus is introduced to Twitter, “the media equivalent of perpetual motion.” His mother worries that he doesn’t possess enough words to fill 140 characters, but her husband consoles her: “One word can sometimes be enough.”
“In Fracassus’s case,” she says, “it will have to be.”
For comic absurdity, the tweets that Jacobson makes up have trouble competing with Trump’s actual Twitter feed. Consider these tweets for a high-brow party game: Fracassus or Trump?
“Bombs only kill when we’re scarred to kill the killer.”
“Greatest margin of victory in any televised debate in history.”
“Pussy” soars highest when it drifts a little further from the pre-satirized antics of the past year. Young Fracassus’s crush on the bare-chested Culture Secretary of Gnossia is a pure cringing delight. You will never forget their toe-wrestling in the forest.
By the end, Jacobson turns his satiric rage on the voters who empower this “monstrous and abnormal thing.” Professor Probrius believes that Fracassus is “a mirror into their secret selves.” The Fracassites, as they’re called, love that their idol pays no taxes. They take delight in his misogynist outbursts. They laugh at his imitation of a man with special needs. Fracassus, it seems, relieves people vicariously from their repressive morality. In the novel’s most astute passage, Jacobson writes, “The lie that the Grand Duke Fracassus had made himself out of nothing allowed the people to believe that they could make themselves out of nothing too. In the flagrancy of the falsehood they found a new spirituality of material hope.”
Rage may be a powerful fuel for a novel, but such acceleration doesn’t tolerate much subtlety. Some distance and time would have allowed Jacobson to produce a more surprising and incisive satire of the man foaming away in the White House. After all, “The Finkler Question” — a comedy about anti-Semitism — is so funny and disturbing because it gives readers no comfortable places to rest. “Pussy,” though, is just one familiar embrace after another. Jacobson writes with all his usual winks and asides, but we know this gag. We recognize that joke. We elected it.
Ron Charles is the host of The Totally Hip Video Book Review.
By Howard Jacobson
Random House. 190 pp. $22.95