As he watched the US election results unfold and realised Donald Trump would become America’s new president, an incredulous Howard Jacobson channelled his “fury of disbelief” into writing his latest novel.
Pussy, written at huge speed, is a brilliant send-up of President Trump and a departure from Jacobson’s usual contemporary fiction.
Published this week, the deliciously funny satire takes wry pot shots at the most powerful man in the US and his inner circle and raises serious questions about morality, identity and truth in today’s increasingly strange political world.
Jacobson, 74, tells me the idea came to him while touring America last year with Shylock Be Thy Name, a darkly humorous rewrite of The Merchant of Venice.
“Satire is an important weapon in the fight against what is happening,” he explains, adding Trump lends himself to parody.
Although Pussy doesn’t once mention the name Trump, the cover of the book depicts the president wearing a giant nappy and clasping a Barbie doll – so it’s certain to infuriate a man who is allegedly thin-skinned and vengeful against critics.
The title, of course, is inspired by one of Trump’s infamous lewd quotes alluding to using his fame for sexual advances on women, while the entire story is sprinkled with Jacobson’s trademark Jewish humour.
A fairy-tale for grown-ups, Pussy tells of Prince Fracassus, spoilt heir to the Duchy of Origen, “famed for its golden-gated skyscrapers and casinos”, who grows up watching TV reality shows, fantasising about prostitutes – and being a Roman emperor.
Lazy, boastful and ill-mannered, he has “no interests”, “notices nothing” and struggles to “construct a sentence or progress a thought,” writes Jacobson. The prince’s older brother Jago is disqualified as a potential leader for being transgender. Could this Twitter-age fledgling Emperor Caligula have the leadership skills to restore his crumbling country to its former glory? His despairing parents appoint two liberal tutors to educate him, but, as in all fairy tales, what seems at first unlikely soon becomes reality.
In writing Pussy, Jacobson attempts to explain how Trump came to power. The novella is much more than a satire, trying to explain how the president won the election and examining the failure of the American education system and the dumbing down of culture and anti-intellectualism, which has led to political disinterest and mental stagnation.
Jacobson particularly attacks Twitter, which Trump famously uses to circumvent the press and address his millions of fans directly. He gives Hillary Clinton and the Brexiteers walk-on parts at the end.
I ask the Manchester-born author if, in the unlikely event the president sat next to him on a bus, what would he say to him?
Jacobson replies wryly: “The idea of Donald Trump travelling on a bus has its own wonderful absurdity. But let’s pretend. Tommy Cooper once did a sketch about finding himself sitting opposite Adolf Hitler on a train. Every now and then he would look up from his newspaper to be certain. We saw him deciding what action to take. Eventually, once he was certain, he looked over his paper and hissed.
“I thought it was a great joke, not least because it left one wondering whether one would do any better oneself, whether there really is anything of sufficient enormity one can say.
“Well Trump isn’t Hitler. But he is a monster in his own right. I don’t think I’d hiss him though, I’d try to draw him out. Ask him who his favourite feminist writer is. Ask where he buys his ties. Ask him if he’s read Pussy. Offer to help him off the bus since I know he has a balance problem – but I wouldn’t be impolite.”
Would he secretly like to visit Trump Tower (if just for ten minutes)? I admit to Jacobson that I would love to take a peek but he replies: “I’ve walked past the one in Manhattan several times but have never wanted to go in.
“It doesn’t look grand, it looks fungal somehow, in the way that excessive sumptuousness can. You can smell the mould of stale intention coming off it when you pass.”
At present, George Orwell’s 1984 is the best-selling book on Amazon. I ask Jacobson whether he thinks we are living in an increasingly post-truth world.
He replies: “It’s not the world that’s false, it’s the people living in it. Twitter is the greatest medium for spreading false rumour that’s ever been invented. We may as well distil poison into one another’s ears.”
Jacobson, who won the Man Booker Prize for his 2010 novel The Finkler Question, isn’t new to writing satirical fairytales.
As a student at Cambridge in the 1960s, he wrote The Ogre of Downing Castle, a work inspired by his tutor, the renowned literary critic F R Leavis.
For Jacobson at least, writing Pussy has proven “hugely cathartic”, because, as he explains, laughter is the best therapy for times like these.
υ Pussy by Howard Jacobson is published by Jonathan Cape, £12.99. Available now.
Satirical: Howard Jacobson