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Review: The aardvark stays in the picture

Jessica Anthony's "Enter the Aardvark."
(Little, Brown and Co.)

Jessica Anthony’s bizarre political satire, “Enter the Aardvark,” is thrilling if hard to swallow.

Jessica Anthony’s slim and perverse political satire “Enter the Aardvark” begins with the creation of Earth. The first scene traces a “whirling mass of vapors” as it becomes sediment and ocean, where flagellates and plankton evolve to grow tails and mouths and fins. As they scoot toward the edge of the water, the author describes the emergence of the first land creature: “Here begins the Great Creep.” She then quantum-leaps to a power outage in Virginia circa 2020, and a closeted young Republican congressman on the verge of a career-endangering high-stakes romp.

Though evolution montages may be somewhat overused as a film trope, here the gambit reads as free, ambitious and thematically crucial. In the tradition of the best existential farces, “Enter the Aardvark” keeps returning to the beginning of all things to ask: So how did we get here?

The novel tangles two stories of thwarted love into one fateful knot. The unraveling of our neo-Reaganite congressman begins with the mysterious delivery of a taxidermied aardvark with unsettling eyes. Then, like A.S. Byatt with a demented sense of humor, Anthony breaks the present action with dispatches about the finicky taxidermist who stuffed and sewed this very aardvark in Victorian-era London. The structure doesn’t so much intrigue as ensnare you, weaving its cat’s cradle of a plot as you lie there, strapped to a table. Dovetailing coincidences and epiphanies, profound and slapsticky, hilarious and depressing at once, “Enter the Aardvark” is brutally suited to our moment of absurd political theater.

You could summarize the novel’s plot much the way you’d summarize our moment, even before the spread of the coronavirus: The situation is complicated and it’ll get worse. During his campaign for reelection, glory-thirsty freshman Rep. Alexander Paine Wilson is arrested for possessing “wildlife” (the dead aardvark) without a federal permit. Possibly the dead aardvark was sent by Wilson’s secret boyfriend, who killed himself (maybe) two days earlier. The scandal threatens to albatross Wilson, especially after it’s alleged that the taxidermy might be connected to Germany’s brutal colonization of Namibia.

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Even with its wild oscillations — from the big bang to Kensington to an annoying Georgetown speakeasy — the book is too buttoned-up to feel surrealist. In the recent memoir “The Lady from Arezzo,” the surrealist pianist Alfred Brendel writes, “Sense and nonsense need to be partners in order to mirror the absurdity of this world.” Anthony’s energetic mind achieves this pairing over and over, matching a straight tone with an absurdist philosophy.

Jessica Anthony, author of "Enter the Aardvark."
(Matt Cosby)

“Enter the Aardvark” is character-driven, with a mean streak and a love of symmetry (more “Scoop” than “1984,” more “Veep” than “Parks and Recreation,” more “Thank You For Smoking” than “Dr. Strangelove”). It’s a credit to Anthony’s authorial control that she can shift among characters who might, if they took the wheel, steer this story into their own genres (the congressman’s political thriller, the boyfriend’s melancholy romance, the taxidermist’s windswept period tragedy). Anthony opts instead for farce with a generous helping of sight-gags — eyeballs popping out of a head, dress-up with Ronald Reagan’s old silk scarves.

Anthony’s approach to Rep. Wilson falls somewhere between Nabokov’s “Pnin” and the aforementioned “Veep.” The politician is anti-choice and deeply flummoxed when he encounters people who take this personally. The decision to narrate Wilson’s sections in the second person elicits an itchy sense of intimacy, especially when faced with his admitted sexism (“After all, there are certain biological facts at work here”), unadmitted racism (“You honestly have no problem with black people at all”) and unabashed privilege (“You’ve never really been comfortable when it comes to serious stuff like oppression, like genocide”). You, the reader, feel like you’ve been body-snatched.

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Which is, thematically, Anthony’s point. She puts a liberal work in the mouth of a slick young conservative. The writing process that spawnedEnter the Aardvark” is instructive here. Anthony wrote the book while serving as the “bridge guard” on the Bridge of Sturovo, between Slovakia and Hungary, under an art residency that supports work in which “boundaries of countries or eras are bridged.” With her huge taxidermy needle, Anthony stitches us into the breast of our nemesis. She wants to see what insights we gain from putting on their skin.

Anthony’s first novel, 2009’s “The Convalescent,” also weighs chaos against the possible connectivity of all things, and it also opens with bold globe-trotting juxtapositions before zooming in on a character in Virginia — though “The Convalescent’s” protagonist is a long-suffering homunculus who sells meat from a truck. He begins by assessing that “other people are always busy doing big and important things like running for president or voting for president, or thinking about running or voting for president.” Anthony picks up that thread, like a long-con joke, with “Enter the Aardvark.” Wilson is that man, that creature with a craving for power always in the back (and sometimes the front) of his mind.

Wilson’s faltering power is also where this novel falters, perhaps because the plot mechanics are propelled by a liberal fantasy. The book flirts with the hoary joke that all homophobic politicians must be gay. More fantastical is the premise that this white, pretty congressman would be deemed suspicious by authorities. The fallout begins when he is pulled over by a cop who has a bone to pick with Wilson’s views on abortion. While we’re in Wilson’s loafers, we get to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing him put on trial, seeded with doubt. It’s a thrilling ride, even if disbelief remains unsuspended. I’d buy another ticket.

Anthony’s point is undeniable: the violence in politics is as ridiculous as it is dangerous. After realizing he needs to take the scandal seriously, Wilson finally researches whether the aardvark is endangered. Nope! The origins of this “sturdy-ass mammal” are “Mesozoic ... it never evolved, and it is actually one of the least endangered mammals on the planet.” Unable to process his own impermanence, Wilson is filled with rage. The aardvark reminds us of a world that existed before and will exist after us. It imparts some humility and gives readers a new perspective on stories — those that persist, haunt, curse and return to us over and over, until we understand them.

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Lange writes about books, salty food and cultural oddities from Los Angeles.

Enter the Aardvark

Jessica Anthony

Little, Brown: 192 pages, $26


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