John Self joins The Critic as our lead fiction reviewer in the June issue
Fancy a new satire about American politics? I didn’t think so. They have been tried and found wanting, whether written by authors old enough (Howard Jacobson) or American enough (Dave Eggers) to know better. The problem has been in trying to satirise Donald Trump, who is not so much beyond satire as beside the point. Trump is a spectacular, a black swan riding a unicorn, about whom little can be said that isn’t already clear; and if an author isn’t a step ahead of the reader, what’s the point?
A better target would be the political structures that surround Trump and have shaped America to fit him, from the media to the foot soldiers of the Republican Party. That is closer to what Jessica Anthony has attempted in her third book, Enter the Aardvark, which was published recently in the US to wild and inaccurate praise — Joyce, Eliot and Nabokov? Really? — and now appears in the UK.
The praise is inaccurate because although this is a fascinating novel, as a top-down political satire it’s fat-thumbed, a tinkertoy accumulation of predictable swipes. The focus is Alexander Paine Wilson, a Republican politician with a name handily suggestive of American political figures. He is young, hungry, and once made BuzzFeed’s list of Hottest Congressmen. He is a closeted homosexual who needs a wife to win re-election, is obsessed with Ronald Reagan and wears clothes by Bill Blass, a favourite designer of Nancy Reagan and (more to the point) of Bret Easton Ellis’s American psycho Patrick Bateman. Like Bateman — like Trump — Wilson is more interested in lifestyle than in life, and Anthony dutifully itemises the eye-watering cost of every high-end product in his home, a device that quickly palls.
If the satire is unsurprising — Republicans are venal and greedy — then why does the book succeed? Because the political stuff is just clickbait to draw the reader into a curious, surprising and moving story about two men who — to put it one way — become involved with an aardvark and thereby condemn themselves to death. One of the men is our antihero Wilson, who takes delivery of a stuffed aardvark, origin unknown, just as he is wondering why he hasn’t heard from his secret male lover for so long. There may be a connection, and the possession of the aardvark somehow drives Wilson into a spiral of evasion, which will ultimately (no spoiler; this is revealed a few pages in) lead to his impeachment.
In strict alternation with Wilson’s narrative comes the story of Sir Richard Ostlet, the nineteenth-century naturalist who discovered our aardvark in southern Africa, before shipping it off to English taxidermist Titus Downing. The expression in the animal’s “flirtatious yet noble” eyes somehow releases a “sudden burden of melancholy” in Ostlet, who takes his own life after sending it off to be stuffed. But death is not the end, and the stories of Wilson and his demons on the one hand, and Ostlet’s widow and Downing on the other, twine around one another and begin to look more and more alike with matching themes of constrained love, suicide and work as therapy.
Enter the Aardvark begins like a novelty, and it’s important to say that this is a book which is at every stage not quite what you expected — Anthony is one step ahead of the reader — and is never boring. One of the surprises is its narrative form: Wilson’s sections are in the second person, normally the last refuge of the literary scoundrel and an attempt to force the reader to identify with an unsympathetic character. But as the story goes on, and we learn more about Wilson’s weaknesses (he has a secret lover because “women make you feel like a man but men make you feel like a human”), the technique works. And Anthony cleverly expands the length of the scenes as the book heads toward its end — reversing the usual trick by which a thriller mimics pace — slowing us down and allowing us deeper into both Wilson’s and Ostlet’s stories, which foregrounds the humans at their heart.
The aardvark, who brings tragedy with him in this story wherever he goes, is one of Earth’s oldest creatures, enduring but unevolved. He shows the dangers of refusing to bend — for Wilson and Ostlet, for example, to deny their true nature — in a world where change is the only constant. In the tyranny of the pursuit of happiness, Anthony suggests, sadness comes pre-installed.
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