CHRIS RIDDELL
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Ode to a philistine: Howard Jacobson's Pussy

 As can be gathered from the title, Jacobson’s target is the current president of the United States.

In his heyday George S Kaufman was noted for being one of Broadway’s most expert writers of comedy and a sardonic mainstay of the group of New York wits that comprised the Algonquin Round Table. As such, he knew a thing or two about the ­dangers of what could best be described as the lengthy lampoon, once tartly noting after a play of his flopped out of town: “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.”

Kaufman was right on the money. The extended send-up of a hierarchical system or a personage is riddled with tonal problems and narrative traps. Do you deride a totalitarian brute by imitating him comically, as Chaplin did so brilliantly in his Hitler send-up, The Great Dictator? Do you enter the realm of dark metaphor – like Orwell’s vision of Stalinism in Animal Farm? Or do you attempt to recontextualise, in the form of absurdist fable, the fatuousness and repellence of a contemporary monster?

This is Howard Jacobson’s satiric strategy in his new novel, Pussy. As can be gathered from the title, Jacobson’s target is the current president of the United States: a gentleman whose absurdities and blowhard excesses give new meaning to the term “post-ironic” (except that there’s hardly anything ironic about a plutocrat/megalomaniac with direct access to the nuclear codes).

In what seems to be an act of frenzied fabulist invention – after all, the idiot was only elected five months ago – Jacobson reimagines the Trump saga in some fictive republic, Urbs-Ludus, which appears to be a cross between an eastern European absolute monarchy and the gimcrack, no-taste excess of Las Vegas ruled over by a Ceausescu-esque pooh-bah named the Grand Duke. He tells an academic he has summoned to his skyscraper court that he has a “little problem” within his immediate realm that needs urgent attention: his deeply wayward son Prince Fracassus.

To say that Fracassus is just a tad disturbed is to engage in massive understatement. He is someone whose verbal utterings explore the crazed outer reachers of Tourette’s syndrome (“Fuck, nigger, cunt” is his version of a casual aside; a way of expressing his impatience with underlings). When it comes to women, he is beyond Neanderthal. Looking up the skirts of one of his tutors, Dr Cobalt, he tries to entertain her with his imitations of the black slave in Gone With the Wind (“Lord, lordy Miss Scarlett”). When Dr Cobalt complains to the prince that “you have more words for prostitute than you have for women”, Fracassus accuses her of playing “a crooked game”.

Fracassus is proud of his philistinism, proud that all his worldly knowledge comes from what has been disseminated on television, happy to admit that whenever he sees Dr Cobalt one word comes into his head: “pussy”. And when he is taught how to tweet, his moronicism knows no bounds. Looking at his erection one morning and realising that, for the first time, he is thinking of someone other than himself, he tweets: “Great boner. Must be love.”

Pussy follows Fracassus’s rise from spoiled pubescent prince to television star to despot-in-ascendant. After his father’s death, he becomes a crazed master builder, putting casinos into poorhouses and strip clubs into old people’s homes. An architectural critic complains that you can no longer see the moon from downtown Urbs-Ludus, and when a member of the public – following his proclamation that “We’re going to muck out the pig pen” – shouts out that Fracassus himself is the pig pen, the great man replies with one word: “Retard.”

For anyone thinking that Pussy is a comic novel, beware: the book is relentlessly unfunny. But this should not be taken as a criticism; rather, a recognition of just how creepily well realised and bleak Jacobson’s vision of the Trump phenomenon turns out to be. Yes, it is written with immense, burlesque broad strokes and moments of satiric excess. But it also captures, with chilling accuracy, the way Trumpism is a reflection of the post-literate world we increasingly inhabit. In this world, universities are “abandoned cities”, consumerism has become the central cultural activity of hoi polloi, and avoiding tax is the plutocrat’s variation on a Holy Grail theme.

An elderly statesman from a nearby republic imparts to the prince this titbit of modern Machiavellian wisdom:

“You ask me are the people stupid. Very far from it. They can smell a fraud a thousand miles away. But ask me if they know what’s best for them, then the answer is a resounding no, because their besotting weakness is that they love a fraudster.”

Bullseye, Mr Jacobson. This is a novel that has much to say about how Mussolinis like Trump coerce others into succumbing to their profoundly myopic, Manichaean world-view by speaking to the worst within the human condition – and how so many among us want our own limitedness validated by a vainglorious potentate.

“It has been observed that mankind plays at life and only realises the seriousness of what it has done too late,” Jacobson writes. Which is another way of saying: we have no one to blame for the Trumps of the world but ourselves. 

Douglas Kennedy’s most recent novel is “The Heat of Betrayal” (Arrow). 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear