Edinburgh International Book Festival: Howard Jacobson’s Trump novella is a horror story for 2017

Author Howard Jacobson
Author Howard Jacobson
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In the early hours of 9 November, 2016, Howard Jacobson woke with a feeling of abject horror. The sense that “a hobgoblin was sitting on my chest, that something evil had happened in the world”.

The Man Booker Prize winner turned on the radio and discovered that Donald Trump had won the US presidential election.

“I was sickened to my stomach,” Jacobson tells me. “Sickened to share humanity with people who don’t know this is the silliest man who has ever lived. There was a real nausea and disbelief that the world had done something so stupid. It’s not my country. Why did I care so much?”

Within hours Jacobson, a garrulous, quick-witted gift of an interviewee who likes to think of himself as “a Jewish Jane Austen”, was at his desk writing a novella. Or rather “a short scourge on mankind” about the 45th President of the United States.

Pussy, the result, is an aberration for the writer oft-described as Britain’s greatest living comic novelist: a curious and purposefully not that funny moral fable written at lightning speed in “a fury of disbelief”.

Jacobson completed it in just six weeks. The title, which the absurdist in him is pleased to tell me has been frequently censored in US reviews, came to him in about six seconds.

“I just felt I had to do something immediately, even though it was against my instincts as a writer, which are to write very slowly,” he explains. “I like measured sentences. I like myself when I don’t produce much. If I write 1,000 words in a day I feel I’ve done something unclean. I get up very early the next morning and get rid of them.”

Like Ali Smith’s Autumn, written immediately in the wake of Brexit, ­Pussy was penned and published at breakneck speed, as though history is now happening at such a furious pace the novelist is compelled to respond to it in real time.

“I felt when I was writing it that if I didn’t hurry up he would be gone,” Jacobson admits. “And I was convinced every single novelist in the country would be writing this novel and they would all be calling it Pussy. If there were 500 Pussies being written I had to get on with it.”

In fact, there has not been a tidal wave of fictionalised Trumps, much to Jacobson’s surprise, though nine months on writers including Salman Rushdie and playwright Tony Kushner have announced they are making work about the US President. “Maybe they’ve all been too smart and known what I should have known,” he laughs.

Pussy, accompanied by aptly grotesque illustrations by Chris Riddell, tells the grim story of the boyhood and coming of age of thin-skinned, moronic, idle, and vilely misogynistic Prince Fracassus: small-handed and big-haired presumptive heir to the Duchy of Origen in Urbs-Ludus (America). A walled monstrosity where nothing flourishes except skyscrapers (and hair), Fracassus grows up, or rather fails to grow up, on a diet of reality TV, cheeseburgers, and social media.

Culturally bereft and virtually wordless, when his father asks him what he thinks of when he sees a woman, his eventual reply is ‘pussy’. By the end of the novel he is running against ­Sojjourner Heminway (Hillary Clinton) for Prime Mover of Urbs-Ludus. And we all know how that goes.

“He is a sad person and in a different kind of book he would have been a pitiable figure,” Jacobson says. “He is culturally disinherited in the same way Trump means to disinherit the American population: have no thoughts, have no words, be stupid. It’s a terrible thing to wish upon your country but so it has been wished upon him. He has a father who cares only about money in its grossest forms and a mother who is lost in children’s stories. That’s one of the other things that worries me: adults reading children’s fiction. We’re living in an age when adults are frightened of grown up-stories.”

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival Jacobson’s event is titled “Consolation of Savage Satire”. Is this, for him, the function of a book like Pussy? Does he seek to console us by making us laugh at a turn of events that is desperately unfunny?

In Pussy the laughs are of the grim kind that incite more of a whimper than a chuckle. Like Fracassus, for example, being obsessed with Emperor Nero and thinking he owns the Cafe Nero chain. “If you feel embattled what’s wrong with the consolation of feeling there are others who feel as you do?” Jacobson says.

“Consolation is one of the lesser pleasures, but it’s not nothing. Isn’t that why we read? I remember reading Jane Eyre as a schoolboy and loving that I wasn’t the only child who felt alienated and desperate. It’s one of the indubitable pleasures of reading so it has to be one of the aims of satire – to cheer up those who feel as you feel.”

And was he consoled by writing it? “It alleviated nothing,” is his typically morose reply. “I still feel as appalled as I did before.”

For Jacobson, who read English at Manchester under FR Leavis and first appeared at the Book Festival more than 20 years ago, his models for Pussy were 18th century satirists and moralists such as Swift, Dr Johnson, and Voltaire. “It couldn’t be an American novel in the Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, or John Updike vein. I’m not a student of American politics and I don’t think Trump is worth that kind of seriousness.”

Pussy, rather, belongs to the realm of grotesquerie. The central question of the novel is not just how Trump was made, but the part we all played in his making: what Jacobson calls our current fascination with non-charisma.

“It’s comedy that might make you weep,” he continues. “I still watch television now, see this profoundly stupid man having to be taken seriously by people, and can’t believe my eyes. This is a biblical book in a way. I see myself as a bit of a Jeremiah: an Old Testament prophet going out in the street and ­saying, ‘Look what you’ve done’.”

He knows that this stance invites accusations of elitism and snobbery. “But I’m not [a snob],” he insists. “We all make mistakes and en masse we’re less likely to be trusted than individually.

“We’re easily swayed and now we’re swayed by forces we don’t understand. I’m appalled by social media; we still don’t know how far it influenced the Trump vote. And he’s found his medium through Twitter: a place of few words and ugly opinion. The idea that people are getting their news from Facebook terrifies me.

“We’ve been here before, in a Europe driven by populism, social unrest, economic disquiet and hero worship. I don’t want anyone to be hero worshipped. I don’t like mass enthusiasm. I like scepticism.”

Jacobson remains horrified by the present moment. “I don’t do hope, really,” he says. And what does he make of the argument – and charge that has been levelled against Pussy by some critics – that our times are so chaotic, so absurd, so ridiculous that we, and President Trump in particular, are now beyond satire?

“It’s a seductive argument but I don’t think it’s true,” Jacobson replies. “There is no such thing as beyond satire. ­Forty years ago Philip Roth was saying we couldn’t invent the world we live in any more. You just find another mode for doing it.

“The world can never be so absurd you can’t laugh at it. There’s always another joke.” And has he entertained fantasies of Trump reading the book? “Yes, although it’s highly unlikely,” Jacobson laughs. “I did thrust a copy into the hands of Bernie Sanders but he was so staggeringly unimpressed and threw me a look of such disdain that it almost turned me into a Trumpist.”

Somehow I doubt that.