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.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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