Howard Jacobson talks Pussy, his Swiftian satirical novel about Donald Trump.

The Author of Satirical Trump Novel Pussy on Why We Live in “Obscene Times”

The Author of Satirical Trump Novel Pussy on Why We Live in “Obscene Times”

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 22 2017 7:33 AM

The Author of Satirical Trump Novel Pussy on Why We Live in “Obscene Times”

2017_16_trump_pussy

Random House/Chris Riddell

“Donald Trump is a carrot-face without feelings.” I wish I could claim ownership of this blunt depiction of our 45th president, but that honor belongs to Booker Prize–winning author and essayist Howard Jacobson. He recently shared that opinion, along with many others, while we talked about Pussy, his stinging new satire about the current leader of the free world.

Pussy describes the ascent to power of the vain, short-tempered Prince Fracassus within the walled Republic of Urbs-Ludus. The second son of the country’s leader, the Grand Duke of Origen, Fracassus becomes the heir presumptive due to his father’s dismissal of his older brother, Jago. Over the course of the novel, Fracassus evolves from a “pugnacious, self- involved and boastful child, not much attentive to the world around him and used to getting his own way” to an older, testier version of the same narcissistic child. All the while, he lives inside the Palace of the Golden Gates, with the family name towering over the entrance of the ziggurat, a dozen floors higher than its nearest competitor.

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Jacobson started writing Pussy the morning after the presidential election. He finished it in a matter of weeks. “I felt this ire rising within me,” he recalls. “I needed to get it out of my system.” The title came first—a reference to the Access Hollywood recording of Trump and Billy Bush trading “locker room talk” on a bus. When Jacobson first heard the tape, he thought it the sad ramblings of an inept, desperate, and lonely man. But as he wrote the book, the title took on a dual meaning, defining Fracassus as a weak and insecure figure. How he came to be that way says less about him and more about the new-money class and the reckless capitalism in which people build casinos and high-rises for play.

Borrowing a page from one of his heroes, Jonathan Swift, Jacobson’s twisted fairy tale turns to the make-believe to create a more universal story. “A fairy tale makes it nowhere in particular, everywhere in general,” Jacobson explains—not that you’ll have any trouble recognizing the caricatures of Putin, Hillary Clinton, and Trump’s cronies that fill his pages. It’s clearly Trump on the book’s cover and throughout the book—an animated man-baby, running in a diaper while holding a scantily clad female doll.

While Jacobson doesn’t hold back from throwing haymakers at Trump, he’s after bigger game. It’s the idea of Trump that he wants to unravel. How did we get to this sad chapter in our history? “I wanted to look at the follies of human nature and how Trump is the lightning rod for all of our stupidities,” he says. “When something is awry in the real world, you must attack it with derision.”

In Jacobson’s mind, Trump and the recent Brexit debacle come from what he calls the current “era of the unlikely,” a far cry from the Age of Enlightenment. In the Era of the Unlikely, people don’t seek to discover the truth as much as they want to believe what they’re told. Jacobson suspects its roots come from a general boredom and a Russian-roulette mentality circulating through the population. “People today seem to get high on things with unexpected results,” he says. “They’re disappointed when there aren’t surprises”—Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum, to name two shining examples. Jacobson wonders if this perversion indeed affects how people vote and whether it robs everyone of the ability to be gracious in victory—knowing deep down they won something they shouldn’t have and feeling anxious about the decisions they made. “People can’t tell you why they vote for something,” he says, “but they can mouth off phrases about ‘blasting the establishment’ and ‘draining the swamp.’ ” It reminds Jacobson of Europe in the 1930s, when Hitler and Mussolini courted popularity with crocodile tears for the economic plight of their respective country’s citizens. “Nothing makes a better dictator than sincerity.”

Jacobson blames much of the current political madness on the decline of language. “Words hold the key to imagination and the ability to describe the world around us. Words get you out of your worst thoughts, take away bigotry, and when needed, provide an escape route.” In his eyes, Trump’s narrow vocabulary, his apparent antipathy to reading anything longer than a single-page summary, is key to his character. “Every writer sees in Trump the antithesis to himself: zero language, zero words, and zero books, which limits thought. Much as he wants to build a border wall, he’s already walled in by the few words he knows.” That Trump loves Twitter, with its 140-character limits, makes perfect sense. “Whereas you come to judgements slowly, with Twitter you use the few words you know to hurl an opinion out anytime you want, no matter how ugly it is.”

According to Jacobson, the idea of a populist president like Trump has been prophesized in America for more than a century by authors such as Melville and Twain. He points to an early-20th-century quote from H.L. Mencken: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

As far outside the realm of normalcy as Trump pushed this recent election cycle, he could have never succeeded without the help of the GOP. In Pussy, Jacobson’s version of Trump aligns with the Ordinary People’s Party in “a marriage of converging interests made in political-convenience heaven.” Back in our world, Jacobson believes that the GOP, in supporting Trump, must now grin and take it for the president. It makes him think of an idea that he wished he’d have put in the book. “I can see all of these Republicans acting like dogs, rolling on their backs and showing their bellies so Fracassus can stroke them. Swift would have done something like that. It’s an obscene image, but then again, we’re living in obscene times.”

Marc Freeman is a Seattle-based freelance journalist who has written for USA Today, Forbes, the Nation, Huffington Post, Microsoft Stories, and MSN. A cum laude graduate in U.S. history of Pomona College, he’s also a Professor in Film Studies at the DigiPen Institute of Technology.