Howard Jacobson's 'Pussy': A Satirical Rant on How Trump Grabbed His Way to Power

Americans will surely recognize the preposterously incompetent and embarrassing figure Booker-winning author Jacobson has put on the page. They elected him.

Howard Jacobson's "Pussy"
Random House / Chris Riddell

“Pussy,” by Howard Jacobson, Random House, 208 pp., $22.95

On January 21, one day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States, more than 5.6 million women gathered in cities around the world (including hundreds in Tel Aviv) for the Women’s March, many wearing “pussy hats,” the now familiar pink knitted beanies with cat’s ears. Many of the women also carried signs with pithy slogans like, “Pussies against Patriarchy,” “My Pussy’s Made of Steel” and “Pussy Bites Back.”

Women were making a powerful effort to reclaim the word “pussy” after Trump had been heard on a ten-year-old tape declaring that, “when you’re a star they let you do it... You can do anything” to women, even “grab them by the pussy.” The president carelessly dismissed his obscenity as locker-room banter, and the very next day, in what seemed like a scornful answer to the march, he reinstated the Global Gag Rule restricting abortion rights and opportunities for women’s health care generally.

This is the kind of reaction the royal family of Howard Jacobson’s fictional Republic of Origen might have had. With “Pussy,” his fifteenth novel, Jacobson has written an altogether too obvious allegorical send-up of President Trump and the increasingly vulgar culture that produced him. The story centers on Prince Fracassus, heir apparent to Origen’s throne. An indolent and thick-headed boy, the prince has big hair the color of “lemon custard” and lives within the Palace of the Golden Gates. (Get it?)

Primed for power from birth by his father the duke, Fracassus does not seem to be developing into someone with leadership qualities; indeed, besotted by TV porn and championship wrestling, he doesn’t seem to be developing, period. Much of the rest of the tale concerns fruitless attempts to educate the pugnacious lad.

Protesters walk up Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March on Washington, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, on January 21, 2017.
MARIO TAMA/AFP

The republic Fracassus is to rule is famous not only for its 170-story towers and Trump-like golden-gated casinos, but also for its disdain of women and immigrants and disrespect for people generally. Protesters against the insensitivity and authoritarianism of the regime and the imminent succession of Fracassus—like the women (and men) who months ago marched in response to President Trump’s executive orders—are allowed to demonstrate, and even to exercise their “power in plebiscites,” because “whatever it was they’d voted for was forgotten in the euphoria” of having cast a ballot. At least that is how the duke explains it to his son.

This kind of condescension comes easily to the prince. In one of his lessons involving word association, when asked what he thinks of when he hears the word “woman,” Fracassus, with no hesitation answers “pussy.” He occasionally adds “cunt,” and also for some reason hidden in his pea-brain “nigger.”

By the time he reaches the age of 15, the prince mostly adores images of himself, but he also likes looking under women’s dresses. No pants may be worn by women in the palace, and certainly no pantsuits of the kind worn by that Metropolitan Liberal Elitist, Soujjourner Heminway (double j to match Hillary’s double l), who will later be Fracassus’ “inept” political opponent. Inept, because of her use of words like “inane,” “imposture,” “mendacity” and “malignancy,” all reflective of her inability to talk to a dumbed-down electorate. Clearly, there are hints, some snide, in “Pussy,” that a disparaging book about Hillary may be fermenting in Jacobson’s fertile brain.

Fracassus is entranced by reality shows and loves a cartoon series about the Roman Emperor Nero—it has so many pictures!—because it supplies enough blood and gore to leave the boy satiated. But only temporarily. Fracassus, who knows little or nothing about the world outside the palace, is moved by Nero to fantasize about future empires. His father observes with pride that, “Fun for Fracassus is victory. Play for Fracassus is war.” The duchess, who is generally ignored, is less sanguine.

The TV shows that featured “boastful winners and cringing losers” were “watched with avidity” by the prince, and those with fewest words were his favorites. Fracassus, however, was not only “short of words,” he “seemed to be in a sort of war with them.” Even more frightening in a future leader is his resistance to change. Fracassus “believed himself to be complete. Ineducable because there was nothing more he would need to know.” There is an older son, the legitimate heir, who had shown more promise, but he has, to the horror and disbelief of his parents, gone “off”—either as a gay man or a trans woman—never to be heard from again. No, he doesn’t show up in the final episode to save the day. Fracassus is all they’ve got. He is the future.

US President Donald Trump addresses the Women’s Empowerment Panel in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 29, 2017.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

The prince gets a mobile device and a Twitter account for his eighteenth birthday, and his mother worries that he doesn’t have enough of a vocabulary even for the 140-character limit. Fracassus tweets gobbledygook and quickly becomes an inspiration, an example of what freedom from instruction could achieve. His parents, however, finally recognize the eventual drawbacks of ignorance and seek a tutor for Fracassus.

Enter Professor Probrius. He has no trouble finding the palace, the tallest building in the land by 20 stories, bearing the name ORIGEN in large letters at the entrance and then again at sky level. The former head of a research program “looking into the importance of language to ethical thinking,” Probrius determines that, “Bad grammar leads to bad men.” His ideas and style of teaching got him into great trouble at his university. Told he was an “elitist” who talked over the heads of his baffled and dissatisfied students, the professor tried to bring those still enrolled in his classes up a notch or two in their communication skills. Soon thereafter he, like other experts in all fields, was accused of the sin of “cognitive condescension,” and summarily dismissed.

Probrius is convinced that his university, indeed the whole idea of the university, was in its death throes. Jacobson agrees. Having written “Pussy” in “a white heat of rage and disbelief” after Trump’s election, Jacobson used his razor-sharp wit not only to target and eviscerate American social and political folly, but also to reveal a system of higher education in steep decline. As the novelist seems to see it, and not without some justice, that decline is in part a product of the universities’ insistence on political correctness, and on “safe rooms” to protect students from discomfort and embarrassment, and ultimately from an enriching complexity.

In addition to a tutor, Fracassus needs “a Twitter adjutant,” a watchdog and translator, who’d take the prince’s babbling and miniscule vocabulary and package them as wisdom. The tweets in the adjutant’s hands “create a collage of moral force and popular influence known to an age of rapid dissemination of trivia as personality.” Even so, the tweets remain gibberish or inconsistent at best. “Was he joking?” it is asked. “But no, not joking. And yet he was not in deadly earnest either. It was as though Fracassus inhabited some hitherto undiscovered zone between meaning what he said and not meaning what he said.” With this perceptive recognition and chilling insight, Jacobson suggests that people are happy to be bamboozled in this “age grown wary of making informed judgments,” as long as the speaker doesn’t claim to be telling the truth. And by this pathway Fracassus becomes the new grand duke.

The people admire their idol who pays no taxes, and are thrilled and titillated by his misogynist and racist insults. They see him as a “mirror into their own selves.” In one of the book’s most perceptive paragraphs, Jacobson writes, “The lie that the Grand Duke Fracassus had made himself out of nothing allowed the people to believe that they could make themselves out of nothing too. In the flagrancy of the falsehood they found a new spirituality of material hope.” 

An overly long farce

That “Pussy,” as Jacobson insists, “explains” why Trump won, is an author’s fantasy, or, if you will, “an alternative fact.” But as Jacobson told the Guardian, he does indeed succeed – through Fracassus – in depicting not only “Trump’s moral bankruptcy but also the sheer bankruptcy of a culture that could produce him.”

British Jewish author Howard Jacobson
AP

The masses, who are deprived of just about everything except a leader who speaks their language, do begin to see – or so we are led to believe – that they cannot become players in this “commercial plutocracy of play.” So, the distinction between politics and the inane entertainment the people have reveled in eventually collapses, and a “revolution” is mounted. But like so much else in this book, it takes the form of a practical joke. And it is televised. Jacobson, no doubt, is alluding to several important social and cultural phenomena: “The Revolution Will be Televised,” a popular, satirical British TV series; and “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” a poem and song, and a slogan of the Black power movement in the 1960s in the U.S. The combination makes for an unnerving postmodern mash-up.

In the end, Jacobson writes, “It was as though belief in Fracassus began to blow away like leaves that had only ever rested on him lightly.” Is he, like Philip Roth in the conclusion of his dystopian novel, “The Plot Against America,” giving us hope by suggesting that the American republic, no matter which clown we elect, can cope? Maybe. But Jacobson begins his book with an epigram from the master of satire himself, Jonathan Swift: “How is it possible to expect that Mankind will take Advice, when they will not so much as take a Warning?” I think we still need to worry.

Jacobson told the Guardian that the book was “brewing” in him since the beginning of 2016 when he was in the U.S. promoting his previous novel, “My Name is Shylock,” and watching Trump on TV “in horror.” After the election, what had been brewing in him boiled over onto the page. As he attacked the keyboard every day at dawn, writing, he said, faster than ever before, “he was making himself laugh.” “Pussy,” however, left this reader cold.

An author can still deliver a deadly serious message and be exceedingly humorous. Jacobson himself has proven this more than once, perhaps no more successfully than in “The Finkler Question,” a laugh-out-loud comedy. But that Man Booker Prize–winning novel is also about the enduring resilience of anti-Semitism, and gives readers little comfort. “Pussy” is one overly long farce—or more precisely, one gag repeated again and again. Americans will surely recognize, and soon tire of, the preposterously incompetent and embarrassing figure Jacobson has put on the page. They elected him.