Books

'Pussy' Is a Savage Satire in the Form of a Comic Fairytale

Howard Jacobson shows that Donald Trump may not be beyond satire, after all...


Pussy

Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Length: 208 pages
Author: Howard Jacobson
Price: $22.95
Format: Softcover
Publication date: 2017-04
Amazon

Not for Howard Jacobson the mere wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth on hearing that Donald Trump had become president. The news, of course, carried itself around to Britain on a wave of foreboding and inevitability as soon as it was announced. Acclaimed British novelist Howard Jacobson set to work at dawn, in London, on a Swiftian satirical novella every day in "a fury of disbelief" from the November election announcement until a few months later when he had completed Pussy.

Pussy is a savage satire in the form of a comic fairytale. The impossibly vulgar Fracassus is every inch the spoiled princeling: he is the heir to the Duchy of Origen, city of the Republic of Urbs-Ludus that isn't up to much without its huge buildings and casinos. His despairing parents see Fracassus bump up against everything around him and attempt to lasso the world and make it stay in his personal orbit: his ego is jagged enough that it jibes with everyone else's smoother edges and usually leaves Fracassus relatively unharmed while slicing through academia, good intentions, feminism and any form of sensible forward planning.

What such a sheltered prince is good for, exactly, is unclear, although accident of birth, riches from the get-go, and a swollen ego make it seem likely that he will end up doing no good. It takes more than one tutor to personally coach Fracassus into even recognising that there's an interface between him and the outside world: and one of them, Yoni Cobalt, sees that she's on a lost cause when the young prince is more interested in looking up her skirt than almost anything else.

If there are any doubts that Fracassus is Donald Trump, Chris Riddell's illustrations squash them flat. The cover picture is unmistakably Donald in a diaper, running forwards into goodness knows what with that expression of determination on his face: funny that a picture of somebody running into nothing, absolutely nothing, can look like a really bad idea. Riddell's illustrations turn up throughout the novella: there's a kind of signature shadow in an almost Victorian childrens' book style of Fracassus/Trump throughout, separating the woe-filled paragraphs.

In Britain, Jacobson is known as and marketed as something of an English Philip Roth: his publishers are at it, with the book jacket design sometimes featuring "Jacobson" in letters much bigger than "Howard" on the front cover, echoing some imprints of certain Roth novels and suggesting something trying to look iconic. (Jacobson knows all about the comparison and says he would rather be "the Jewish Jane Austen".) The similarities are there: the worldliness, the literary examination of masculinity and male lives, the sense that they would make a hell of a dinner party guest, the spellbinding sense that Judaism is somehow at the heart of what they think, feel and write. There are clear parallels between Pussy and Roth's 1971 novel Our Gang which took aim at Richard Nixon and company, ending in Trick E. Dixon making trouble even in death and running for the position of the Devil.

Pussy has been criticized for having a cross-pollination of real and fictional characters. Curiously Jeremy Corbyn, the divisive leader of the British Labour Party, turns up in name, although no-one else does. The highly sexed, buffoonishly intelligent Philander seems quite close to blonde mop-topped British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Soujjorner, the academically inclined coat-check girl who is one of the few who doesn't want anything to do with Fracassus, seems to have something in common with of Hillary Clinton.

Guess who Vozzek Spravchik, rugged outdoorsy in-a-bromance-with-Fracassus is supposed to be. Saying that you can't have the best of both worlds in terms of real and fictional is an odd criticism, though: a comic satire which was identifiably one thing or the other would be odd and clunky, and it's fun to put names to shadowy faces.

Only the surliest critic would accuse that Englishman Jacobson has poked his nose in where it isn't wanted. America affects us all and the uncomfortable climate which produced Britain's exit from the European Union, he believes, is part of the whole topsy-turviness of it all. It's unlikely that he would convert anyone to anything left-leaning with Pussy and he is not looking to: "Pussy isn't going to persuade anyone who's already persuaded otherwise." But Jacobson says that anger and dissatisfaction are, really, big motivating forces in why he writes. Not for him quiet, English despair and retiring to the drawing-room: he was up at the crack of dawn every morning to write until he had exorcised that particular demon from his system.

Jacobson takes aim not only at Donald Trump but at the restlessness in the air which has blown the wrong way and brought us leaders on both sides of the Atlantic that, in all fairness, we would be better off without. Jacobson recently took aim at the notion that anyone caught moaning about Britain's vote to leave the EU could, and should, be shut up by the "will of the people" chestnut. Jacobson has said recently just come right out and said that "democracy gets a hell of a lot wrong" and that if you really believe that the will of the people has led a nation astray, then it's your duty to come out and say so.

And say so he has, in a sharp, right-headed satire made all the more astonishing for its being written so quickly. If you are so inclined, you might want to imagine Jacobson sitting on the end of your bed reading Pussy to you at night in those sonorous northwest of England tones, then bidding you goodnight, leaving you to dream of a fairer world.

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