Electric Lit is committed to publishing—and paying writers—through the pandemic without any layoffs or pay cuts. Please consider supporting us during this difficult time. Donate here.
At the beginning of Enter the Aardvark, Alexander Paine Wilson (R), a congressman so obsessed with Ronald Wilson Reagan that he purchases the same denim cowboy shirt and canary-yellow couch as the former president, is thinking about how he needs to “Find A Wife” in order to win his reelection campaign. The doorbell rings over and over again, interrupting Wilson’s reverie, and FedEx man drops off a large box on his porch. Inside is an enormous taxidermied aardvark.
The aardvark itself––a strange and somehow beguiling creature––serves as connective tissue for alternating storylines set in present-day Washington DC and 19th century England. In incisive and entertaining prose, Jessica Anthony satirizes wildly egotistical, hypocritical politicians, explores the ways in which repressing our true desires can cause harm, and illuminates the danger that stems from a dearth of empathy.
In 2015, while writing the first draft of this novel in a feverish six-week period, Anthony couldn’t have known just how prescient her work would be in our current climate, one in which we are isolated from one another physically, one in which politicians are limiting essential services like abortion, and one in which the president of the United States, when asked during a press conference what he would say to Americans scared of COVID-19, would respond, “I say you’re a terrible reporter.”
From our separate social isolation spaces, I spoke with Jessica Anthony on Zoom about engaging politically through writing, the strangeness of writing (and reading) satire in our current climate, and the ways in which isolation has fostered unexpected connection.
Jacqueline Danielle Alnes: I have to ask why the aardvark?
Jessica Anthony: The founder of surrealism, André Breton, has a concept called the “waking sentence,” just a gathering of words which can awaken in a writer or artist a sense of the dream that you want to pursue. Back in 2012, I had this phrase, “enter the aardvark,” that felt somehow weirdly alive. I sat with it for about three years. Finally, in 2015, in the run-up to the election, I thought I might write some kind of political fiction. I started with this scrap of poetry, this little waking sentence. So that’s how the novel began to be born––purely through language.
JDA: I love that. I had my own suspicions––or maybe not suspicions, more like curiosities––about how you chose the aardvark. Within the book itself, there are hints as to why. The aardvark is a funny animal and the prose itself is absurd in some ways. The language you spoke about of course makes sense, but as you were writing into it, what sort of things did the aardvark lend itself to?
JA: The aardvark, the animal, is one of the most evolutionary distinct creatures on earth. Their physiognomy really hasn’t changed that much since the Miocene. There’s something that felt quite eternal about this beast, the more I read about them. But it was really just their irrational visage that I became interested in. They’re very sweet looking. I don’t know if you’ve ever really looked at aardvarks ––
JDA: I did. After reading the book, I couldn’t stop scrolling through pictures.
JA: They have wonderful elongated snouts and those rabbity or donkey ears, and long whiskers underneath their eyes. There’s something truly marvelous about the irrationality of their appearance that just began to lend itself metaphorically to a fiction that was examining the everlasting irrational politician. There are, in my mind, elephants, and there are donkeys, and then there are aardvarks, these men who walk among us who vote one way in public and live another way in private. They’ve been part of our political sphere for as long as America has been around.
JDA: I have to admit, it was strange to read this book during these past few weeks. I feel like everything has been so heightened and surreal, that to read satire in the midst of it was like “Oh my god, this is actually happening.” I had to remind myself of where I was, and then also where the book was.
JA: Yes, yes.
JDA: The main character Alexander Paine Wilson, who is highly hypocritical in his political policies versus personal practices, almost rang too true to reality to feel like satire. Of course you wrote this, like you mentioned, in 2016, but what is it like releasing this book in our current climate?
JA: I began writing in a time when it was still assumed that Hillary Clinton would be president. That’s when the first draft of the novel was written––I wrote it in six weeks. I was paying attention to a number of different aspects of the political sphere but also spheres of media that felt new to me and which I wanted to open the fiction up to –– cancel culture, for example, and the way that we are managing huge influxes of information through phone technology, emails, etc., and this constant sense of building and racing. Now, under the coronavirus, we’re all on pause.
But the novel does investigate the psyche of the contemporary GOP. Alex Paine Wilson is in many ways endemic of the young, modern, ambitious, and vain, fairly radicalized, GOP politician. He exists on Earth to please Mitch McConnell. When you think of that psyche in this particular moment, I’m seeing it play out in all kinds of terrifying ways. We just saw one of Trump’s press conferences where he used the chilling language “goals of community mitigation” to announce the likely death of over a hundred thousand Americans. I’m reminded of George Orwell: “The enemy of clarity is insincerity.” There’s something woefully muddled and threatening about political speech already, but when it’s used to communicate about the loss of human life, the threat of insincerity feels worse.
These subterranean dangers of the insincere GOP psyche that I was investigating in the novel really have risen to the surface during the coronavirus. I’m seeing all kinds of ways in which this particular mentality is destructive, not only to the people who live it, but to the rest of us.
JDA: Alexander Paine Wilson runs for reelection for the First Congressional District in Virginia on a platform of “DIVIDE TO UNITE.”
JDA: Other characters he encounters are severely divided by political party. These oppositions, ultimately, seem harmful to everyone in the novel, and stymie people both personally and politically. What interests you about these divisions?
JA: It bothers me because I’m paying attention. Most people I know are paying attention. I want fiction to pay attention. It’s a real problem that Americans are not communicating with one another as human beings, but as political entities. We are making assumptions about our neighbors based on whatever ridiculous ephemera we are coming up with about their possible political representation. This is the toxicity that the novel engages with. Political affiliation is the major defining personal characteristic for most Americans nowadays. If novelists aren’t interested in creatively engaging that divisiveness then what we aren’t writing about in the United States is going to be felt by the writer as much as what we are.
JDA: You guarded the Maria Valeria Bridge between Štúrovo, Slovakia and Eztergom, Hungary and that allowed you to “escape U.S. politics.” I wondered –– this novel is steeped in politics; how did getting away from the U.S. help you to find your way in the writing of it?
JA: The bridge guarding was particularly timely, because this was the summer of 2017. I think all of us were feeling the heavy weight of all kinds of nonsensical, threatening and/or dangerous rhetoric. You reach a point as a novelist where you really do need to disappear into the dream of your story. You need vast stretches of silence. The bridge guarding was a residency for three months on the Danube River that was filled with long, slow days where everyone around me either spoke Slovak or Hungarian. I rarely went online. So it was this marvelous quiet time to drop myself into the book and to ask myself the tougher questions you have to ask yourself when you’re finishing a novel.
JDA: Early in the book, Titus Downing, a taxidermist who believes that “the art of the taxidermist if not all that different from the art of a magician,” says, “The secret lies only in displaying beauty truthfully to life. The beauty must be recognized for its own sake, even by the unscientific.”
After reading that line, I couldn’t help but think about the idea of writing fiction –– that there are truths, sometimes uncomfortable, that emerge from artifice. In this current political climate, one that you satirize in this novel, what do you hope fiction can do?
JA: James Baldwin has a great quote about this, that only poets can tell the truth. And by poets he means all writers and artists. I don’t think any of us sits down to write a novel for the purpose of being didactic or polemic. A novel is not a lesson in how to be. It’s not so polite. But there is some investigation into human desire that I think unites all of us as writers and readers, an investigation that is maybe unique to novelists. It’s oddly through the act of immersing yourself in another person’s psyche, or the psyches of a number of characters who create community, that you are creating a discourse, a way of communicating to your readers’ subconscious without perhaps even realizing what the “message” is. Maybe you will never know, as how the reader feels and understands your fiction is wholly dependent upon them, and their own relationships with their memories, what they know of this shared world.
I’m not interested in delivering a lesson to my reader. I’m interested in entertainment. Primarily my love of fiction comes from my need to be an entertainer and to share with my reader a little of my own sense of how I see the truth of our everyday life. It’s my own helpless desire to tell the truth as I see it, which I’ve found most comfortable through the veil of fiction. I feel much more at ease when I feel like I’m speaking to the reader dreaming, to what they maybe don’t even realize they know. The subconscious has always been more logical to me.
JDA: In Enter the Aardvark, we have these two plot lines that run parallel to one another. As the novel goes on, there are these moments that echo each other ––
JDA: Everything is repeating or slowly unraveling in ways you didn’t see or mirroring one another or juxtaposing one another in ways that help illuminate what is different and what remains the same. I wondered how you reckon with history –– or histories –– as ways of understanding the present.
JA: What I’m interested in the ways the contemporary post-modern, post-humanist, however you want to define it –– our modern moment –– how that psychology butts up against who we used to be. Which is to say, writing history is possible for me through the sense of an exaggerated, contemporary voice. When I’m writing history, it’s largely farcical: revised, reimagined stories that are blown up and hyperbolized. Writing history this way gives me a sense of the universal.
So Titus Downing, the taxidermist who stuffs the aardvark, he is in voice like Henry James, Jane Austen, but he is also kind of like Don DeLillo a little bit. There’s a kind of modern cynicism in there, a modern attitude as you follow Titus Downing. I think for me as a novelist it’s rewarding to place this contemporary doubt upon historical fictions. Some funny and profound truths emerge.
JDA: There are ways where either of these plot lines without the other would just flounder a little bit or not be as poignant or funny with the relief that they give each other.
JA: There’s something about the emotional resonance that occurs reading Alex Wilson which actually comes through Titus Downing’s passages, and his stuffing of the aardvark and his love for the aardvark. When we read Titus Downing, there’s an earnestness to his character that, arguably, you could say is the heart that Alex Wilson. Potentially. If he were a little kinder, a little bit more forgiving, and a little more accepting of the diversity of human experience, which he isn’t.
But also these men all share some pretty radical and profound struggles with their sexual identities. The fact that Alex Wilson belongs to a party that doesn’t support his sexual preference is a cruelty imposed upon this character, and it’s one that hasn’t changed since 1875, Downing’s time. There’s quite a lot that binds these characters in my mind beyond their sexual identity: notions of reincarnation and rebirth and reimagining life through taxidermy are there. The aardvark, of course, is there.
JDA: These kind of surprising connections between characters has me thinking again about the current situation we are in, one where we are all isolated but forging connections in new ways. I’m sorry that your book tour has been cancelled like so many others right now. I wondered if in some way, you’ve found unexpected sources of community during all of this.
JA: At first, I was pretty nervous about losing the book tour. It was quite devastating. I’ve been likening it to finishing a five-year marathon and then you’re tackled by a surprise football team that comes out of nowhere ten feet before the finish line. Full confession: I’ve spent the last ten years trash talking social media, and I’m not sure that my general attitude towards it has dramatically changed. I’ve never been inspired by a text message. But it’s rather amazing that we are able to communicate through these technologies in the way that we are, when the chips are down. All the junk that I was really cynical about, like the little hearts that trickle up on the side of the screen on Instagram, I find myself now thinking, “Aw, that’s really nice.”
I find myself in this makeshift TV station in my office having all kinds of marvelous conversations with people who maybe I wouldn’t have been able to connect to otherwise. My first couple of book events, we have seen a hundred people or more joining in. I’ve seen bookstores really rallying behind authors. It’s like we are all realizing the degree to which we rely upon each other. Readers, booksellers, publishers, and writers –– we all occupy the same collective space.