Friday 15 December 2017

Seething satire of Trump's rise

Fiction: Pussy, Howard Jacobson, Jonathan Cape, pbk, 208 pages, €14.99

Funny man: HowardJacobson won the Booker in 2010 for The Finkler Question, his comic exploration of Jewishness
Funny man: HowardJacobson won the Booker in 2010 for The Finkler Question, his comic exploration of Jewishness
Pussy by Howard Jacobson

Hilary A White

Howard Jacobson's reaction to the recent US election is viciously sharp, and almost too close to the bone to be funny.

It's a nice idea that when the world becomes too ugly and chaotic to fathom, the best reaction is to laugh at it. If you don't, after all, you'll probably cry. Satire has thus been ever-present in society as far back as medieval puppeteers who could get away with slagging the monarchy via a detached secondary mouthpiece.

Howard Jacobson's Pussy is apparently the fastest writing the British author has ever committed to print and was vomited out in the two months following the US elections last November. Jacobson had watched agog for many months at the preposterous but somehow understandable rise of Donald Trump towards candidacy.

After the result, Jacobson developed an itch to satirise the events and, "in a fury of disbelief", churned out 50,000 lacerating words in the form of a fable, one filled to its margins with viciously sharp humour and gossamer-thin allusions to reality.

While delirious in its excoriations, Pussy can be hard to laugh at at times as it is so on-the-nose, in much the same way many rock bands find This is Spinal Tap too accurate to be outright comedy. Fracassus, Jacobson's horrid little avatar for Mr Trump, is a special creation but as we read of the germination of his misogyny, egotism, limited lexicon and xenophobia, it can be hard to forget he is rooted in current affairs.

There are nods to the Medicis of Renaissance Florence in the "Republic of Urds-Ludus" and Fracassus' father - the Grand Duke of Origen - "Renzo".

He and the Duchess live in the Palace of the Golden Gates, "a symbolic focus of the Republic's satisfaction with itself" which is taller "by at least a dozen storeys" than any of the other towers in the Republic. It even has a designated protest pen outside its golden entrance. Jacobson doesn't use veils, he uses cling film.

Talk of "the Great Purge of the Illuminati", "Artisanal Bread Riots" and "Thumb Courts" point to a society where intellectualism has taken a back seat. Prince Fracassus is born and bears the Origen family traits - "tiny eyes indicative of petty grievance, the pout of pettishness and a head of hair already the colour of the Palace gates" (with time, this hair will be "enfolded into itself like a napkin at a banquet"). He is a monstrous little orc, a purveyor of words such as "retard" and "faggot", and responds to challenges from Dr Cobalt, his specially appointed, full-breasted and beleaguered tutor, by pouting "that's unfair" at her. Brightstar (ahem), a website espousing nativism, homophobia and "anti-mongrelist ethno-nationalism" quickly latch on to the prince.

Jacobson has spoken about the novel being a comic, destructive, sceptical form and rightly divides both barrels between Mr Trump and the very society that empowered him. Fracassus grows up and idolises Emperor Nero, but if he is to become a tyrant (which, after all, is "just the embodied will of the people"), he must learn finesse. Prof Probrius is hired to advise him, and with him comes the assertion that "blame culture" has brought about "the end of stupidity as a concept", i.e. the guilt we feel at labelling someone a fool is tempered by granting "some atom of intelligence… to the very stupid".

Those championing Fracassus are the very ones likely to pour money into his casino empire in search of their own slice of the Origen dream. Voters enjoy being lied to. Everything's true, not because it is, but because he says it is.

Superbly spry, mischievous fun, yes, but the riot really kicks up a gear when Fracassus is introduced to Twitter, a medium perfect for him as it absolves the user of the obligation to listen or respond. Shortly after, he makes a trip to "Gnossia" ("essentially the same country divided by a wall") to engage in some pally toe-wrestling and business deals with their corrupt, homophobic and outdoorsy autocrat, Vozzek Spravchik.

Fracassus becomes ubiquitous via reality TV before going on to win the candidacy and go up against a female candidate who embraces "the desire for something different and the need for everything to stay the same".

Jacobson is beside himself now. Fracassus beguiles the business world first through the sheer insistence of his fibbing, jutting and pouting and bluffing his way through speeches. The masses buy the lie that he is self-made because it makes them believe they too could make something of themselves. His rival loses the televised debate for a number of reasons, such as mentioning the glass ceiling and "oppressing" viewers with "her mastery of argument and comprehensive grasp of affairs".

This novella works on a couple of levels beyond the simple game of satirist decryption - try to spot Trump's supporting cast here - offering belly-laughs but also a cipher through which to redigest the bizarre unfolding of events that culminated in the 45th US Presidency.

A seething little nugget of a book.

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