- Enter the Aardvark, by Jessica Anthony. Doubleday. $24.99.
Jessica Anthony's stylish political satire, Enter the Aardvark, opens with congressman Alexander Paine Wilson reclining on a canary-yellow velvet Victorian sofa while admiring a photograph of Ronald Reagan reclining on a canary-yellow velvet Victorian sofa.
It's a fittingly absurd point of departure for a book that delights in skewering the painstakingly constructed image that this delusional neo-Reaganite has created for himself. However, despite the tranquillity suggested by Wilson's repose, things are not going well for the junior congressman.
It's August. It's stinking hot. The air-con isn't working. And although Congress is in recess, Wilson is not because he's running for re-election in the First Congressional District in Virginia. Worse still, Wilson's opponent, a middle-aged-woman-with-children named Nancy Beavers, is polling well, which leads his aides to suggest that he "Find A Wife".
This is a problem for the congressman who, despite insisting that he's "Not Gay" is, in fact, very gay. To make matters worse, Wilson's personal and professional lives are thrown into chaos when a taxidermied aardvark is dumped on the doorstep of his Foggy Bottom townhouse by a FedEx driver - or is it someone disguised as a FedEx driver?
The number of satirical novels published each year represents only a fraction of the number of satirical novels that publishers claim to publish each year. This is unfortunate. It's also understandable.
In Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens observed ruefully that "the ceaseless requirements of the entertainment industry" threatened to deprive us of certain forms of critical style. One of the forms that "Hitch" was talking about, of course, was satire. Sure enough, the very idea of satire has been appropriated, expanded and stretched to the point where it has become almost meaningless to many people. Some of those people work in publishing, which is why this reviewer is always wary of books that are billed as such. Fortunately, the characterisation fits here.
Anthony's pitch-perfect critique of late-stage catalogue culture elevates Enter the Aardvark well beyond the outer limits of comedy and farce and into the rarefied realm of proper satire.
"Your bathrobe is navy blue with red piping and cost $398... You wear an oxford underneath. Like Reagan... Motherofgod, you think, what a pain in the ass, as you dress yourself, head to toe, in light casual summerwear from J. Crew... You turn on your 75-inch Samsung widescreen 4K Q9F Series UHD TV with HDR ($3999)."
And so it goes, Anthony's deadpanned descriptions laying waste to Wilson's base consumerism. But if this truth telling makes for slightly uncomfortable reading, it's not just because you enjoy amassing stuff as much as the junior congressman evidently does. That vague sense of discomfort can also be attributed to Anthony's liberal use of "you".
Second-person narration is tricky. While it can be used to good effect to involve the reader in the action - or at least to give the illusion of involvement - it can quickly become irksome when wielded by inexpert hands. Fortunately, Anthony's authorial discipline helps her avoid try-hard territory. Her effective use of second-person narration also serves to heighten the satiric effect of the narrative.
Unless you're a misogynist or a racist or a particularly mean-spirited conservative, Congressman Wilson's social and political beliefs will likely strike you as anathema to what constitutes a reasonable worldview.
But when those beliefs are attributed to "you", the jarring effect is amplified tenfold. "Women make you feel like a man, but men make you feel like a human... After all, there are certain biological facts at work here... There are also many minorities out there that make you uneasy, like black people or LGBT or whatever, but you do not take them seriously... You honestly have no problem with black people at all."
Anthony's generous servings of second-person small-mindedness, which are laced with wry comedy - "LGBT sounds like something you'd order in a diner with mayo" - leave you feeling more than a little corrupted.
It's almost as if you've been become a host to Wilson's bigotry, which is clearly the point. To put it another way, don't let the comedy and sight gags fool you - this is a serious book.
Written in 2017, while Anthony was serving as a guard on the Maria Valeria Bridge, which spans Sturovo, Slovakia and Esztergom, Hungary, Enter the Aardvark has much to say about race, gender, power and violence in American culture, which makes it uniquely suited to these troubled times.
That it manages to do so in such uproarious fashion is proof of its satirical bona fides, and testament to Anthony's abilities as a novelist.