Extending the Range of Pejoratives: Howard Jacobson’s Pussy

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Written in “a fury of disbelief” during the weeks that followed the unlikely election of Donald Trump, Howard Jacobson’s latest novel Pussy dramatizes the education and rise to power of Prince Fracassus, heir to the Duchy of Origen, until he begins to preside over the Republic of Urbs-Ludus.

The plotline is minimal but engrossing thanks to Jacobson’s spirited, arch tone and the seemingly effortless elegance of his style. Before he becomes the hero-villain-rapscallion of the story, we are given to witness Fracassus as a feisty little brat. It comes as no surprise that his parents have spared the brains and spoiled the child. Fracassus spends his golden childhood guzzling reality TV shows and casting himself in the role of Emperor Nero.

Perceiving finally that their son is growing into a self-centred vulgarian, the Duke and Duchess worry that Fracassus will be unfit for power. To avert this unseemly outcome, they hire Professor Probrius, a former University lecturer who has fallen prey to the rising tide of political correctness in the duchy.

Some of the most delightful satire in Jacobson’s novel is written at the expense of the current trend for PC. During the Great Purge of the Illuminati, Probrius is debarred from teaching at University because he is so eminent in his field that a body of students complains that they are “distressed by the perceived distance between his attainments and their own”. He is found guilty by a Thumb Court of “cognitive condescension” and abruptly fired from tenure. It’s a highly amusing take on the current spread of student revolts against the intellectual challenges of dialectical thinking through debate and disagreement in both America and Britain.

Fracassus’s other appointed tutor is Dr Cobalt, chosen for her icy manners by the Grand Duke himself to rein his son in and prepare him for the dignified and clear-minded exercise of power. The prince’s two mentors attempt to expand his miniscule vocabulary and shepherd him towards more behavioural subtlety, with sometimes baffling results. Fracassus is no easy pupil, having what Probrius calls “Tourette’s, without the Tourette’s”. The syndrome the child Fracassus is afflicted with actually seems closer to coprolalia, the compulsive utterance of inappropriate or obscene words.

Over time, Probrius manages to expand Fracassus’s vocabulary to include words like “classy”, which he begins to use on practically every occasion that pleases him with increasing relish. Jacobson occasionally lets slip some of his own lexical knowledge and rhetoric into Fracassus’s later utterances, almost inadvertently it seems, since he is at pains throughout the novel to underscore Fracassus’s stupidity.

For a writer with so much verbal and intellectual panache, it must have been a strain to depict Fracassus’s impoverished mindscape. Anthony Burgess, another vastly knowledgeable wordsmith, succeeded in limiting his vocabulary to parody the debasement of contemporary culture for the space of an entire novel in One Hand Clapping (1961), a task which Jacobson would no doubt find excruciating, given his unstoppable love of the rhapsodic phrase.

It’s been argued that Trump is so excessive, such a living caricature himself, that he is beyond parody, but Jacobson manages to up the ante with skill and panache. His comic fairy-tale rendering of Trump as a child is hilarious and deeply engaging, providing what Jacobson in interview has called “the comforts of satire”.

Jacobson’s mental and physical caricature of Trump (“His natural movement is a forward projection of a sort I’ve only seen on a bewildered primate”) is entertainingly illustrated by Chris Riddell’s silhouettes of Trump in diapers trailing a Barbie doll or an over-long tie between his legs.

While Jacobson is adept at showing how Trump has managed to appeal to the values of Dumbocracy, it was arguably a little bit of an easy way out to dumb Trump himself down. Dismaying as it is, Trump succeeded in getting to the White House largely through his cynical ability to sense the Zeitgeist and claptrap the ordinary working class man accordingly. The most alarming thing about him is that he is crafty, adaptable and intuitive.

by Erik Martiny


Pussy by Howard Jacobson is published by Jonathan Cape (April 2017)