Pussy by Howard Jacobson - review

William leith
Mr President: a Donald Trump lookalike in a stunt organised by artist Alison Jackson: Getty Images

First, the setting. We are in some kind of preposterous city state called the Republic of Urbs Ludus. It is, we are told, “a society that set great store by fantastical coiffure”. It has one industry: “the construction of towers. Nothing else was made.” In one of these towers, in their powdered pomp, are the grand duke and duchess. He wears his medals. She wears high heels and a gown that hangs open, but for the paperclip that guards her modesty. She has had breast surgery. “Both had hair the colour of lemon custard.”

The duke and duchess are the parents of the story’s main character. He’s called Fracassus. My rusty Latin tells me this is a combination of “broken” and “empty”. And this is a fair description of Fracassus. He’s ignorant and degenerate. He’s full of knee-jerk prejudices. From a young age, he is obsessed with prostitutes. When his father asks him what he thinks of when he sees a woman, he supplies a single-word answer. “Pussy,” he says.

This is a satirical novel, and you don’t have to spend any time wondering who the satire is aimed at. On the cover of this book is a cartoon by Chris Riddell. It depicts Donald Trump, wearing a nappy and carrying what appears to be a Barbie doll. So, as you start to read this book, you keep thinking of the current leader of the free world. Trump, Trump, Trump, you think.

The thing this book reminds me of, actually, is a book by Riddell himself, The Emperor of Absurdia, in which a baby imagines an entire world, with himself at the centre, by looking at his toys. In this book, Fracassus has very little experience of the world. But he does have his toys — one of which is Twitter. He also has a fixation on the Emperor Nero who, he imagines, is the owner of a chain of coffee shops.

So what happens to Fracassus, this empty vessel who makes a lot of noise? Well, he has a relationship, bordering on bromance, with a foreign politician called Vozzeck Spravchik, “the first great man he had ever encountered face to face”. Spravchik shaves his chest. They have a toe-wrestling competition. And, somehow, events conspire in a way you might not have predicted. Fracassus’s tutor, Kolskeggur Probrius, points out a strange fact: “There’s something about him that compels attention,” he says. “It can’t be looks and it can’t be presence, because he has neither.”

But still, there it is. In the world of Urbs Ludus brute ignorance seems to have a strange, occult power. The whole thing reads like a dream Howard Jacobson might have had on the night of November 8, 2016. And then, I imagine, he woke up and started writing straight away.

£12.99, Amazon, Buy it now

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