MARCH 24, 2020
JESSICA ANTHONY OFFERS UP a bombastic, stylized, brief (perhaps too brief) examination of the inner workings of a gay thirtysomething Republican in Enter the Aardvark. In sentences that are propulsive and blunt, we follow Alexander Paine Wilson on a comic adventure to return a stuffed aardvark to his lover’s doorstep without being outed. Serving as a counternarrative is the story of Titus Downing, the taxidermist that sutured the aardvark, and provided the strange, sad look of it via the use of his dead lover’s eyes. While the novel burns itself out in 179 pages, Anthony manages to show us what makes Alexander tick, as well as hold up a funhouse mirror to our own political media in the age of spin.
Beginning with a brief history of the aardvark that makes use of long, complicated sentences reminiscent of Joyce’s Dubliners and the later works of T. S. Eliot, the prose quickly transitions into something more modern, but equally ambitious by page seven. Focusing on the second-person “you,” Anthony establishes an immediate sense of sympathy for Alexander by putting us in his place. From there, we’re left to marvel at our own terrible, selfish thoughts as we mentally lash out at Nancy Fucking Beavers, a middle-aged congresswoman who is Alexander’s competition for the First Congressional District in Virginia. We sit back on our couch thinking about the campaign, reflecting:
If you Find A Wife, they say, your Favorability Rating will improve, because although you are neck and neck with Nancy Fucking Beavers, a middle-aged woman with an ass like two neighborly cast-iron skillets who wears those unbelievable pantsuits — Nancy Fucking Beavers is not fucking single.
This sense of bluntness effortlessly moves the narrative, even when we’re offered real insight into Alexander. When Alexander reflects on a counselor telling his mother he is “empathically […] deficient,” his dad is remembered as summarizing that by saying, “He’s a jerk, that’s what it means.” This bluntness provides a sense of humor, but it also undercuts how selfish or sociopathic he really is. When Alexander ruminates on his sexuality, and his discomfort with women, he thinks, “There are many minorities out there that make you uneasy, like LGBT or black people or whatever, but you do not take them seriously. LGBT sounds like something you’d order in a diner with mayo. As for black people, they only make up 13.4% of the population.” Throughout, Anthony uses her razor-sharp sense of wit to organically ground Alexander’s awfulness in prose, and wring out both irony and loathing for him.
Along with this narrative approach, Anthony has Alexander tell us how much everything he lounges, mopes on, or wears costs in order to further balance out the loathing for the character. We learn that his kitchen is “decked out in $6000 worth of Williams-Sonoma,” and that his towel is a “$339 Hermes Sarcoline Terrycloth Body Towel.” This obsession with taste and material wealth is bolstered by casual criticisms of the cheap clothes of his fellow congressmen, harrumphing about the khakis that police officers wear, and by his unfamiliarity with the “mysterious” outlet, T.J.Maxx. Alexander’s world is not our own, and he’s done his level-best to never let anyone forget it. Anthony uses all of this as a counterpoint to everything else in the novel, including his homosexuality; his feelings for his dead fling, Greg Tampico; and the story of Titus Downing.
Downing in particular is a direct contrast to Alexander, even if their experiences and losses as closeted men are similar. In lesser novels, Downing’s narrative would run the risk of seeming perfunctory or forced, but Anthony knows what she’s doing, and imbues the story with enough soul to make Downing seem necessary to the success of the book as a whole. His plot essentially follows him trying to secretly pay tribute to the memory of Richard Ostlet, his soulmate, and a married man of means that took his own life. He ultimately decides to pay tribute by using Ostlet’s distinct bulging eyes in his latest taxidermy project: an African aardvark. Where Alexander is insufferable and calculating in everything except his relationship with Greg Tampico, Downing is kind, broken up in his grieving, and cranky in nuanced ways. Yet, the two share similar heartbreaks, and Anthony nicely mirrors their melancholy with the eyes of the aardvark. Downing saw Ostlet’s eyes as windows of love, and Alexander feels closer to Tampico when he looks into the aardvark’s, since the two had similarly large blue eyes.
Alexander’s feelings for Tampico are compromised by his struggle with being out as a conservative congressional representative. He clarifies early on that “you are simply both straight guys who occasionally like other straight guys.” Yet, the noted discomfort with women, and offhanded lines about beautiful women, like the possible stage wife, Toby Castle, indicate a serious interest in men. The book’s greatest achievement may very well be its exacting dissection of Republican homosexuality in connection to avarice and the Republican Party’s ideals. For every description as cunnilingus as “not terrible,” and admission that Alexander preferred Greg Tampico’s “meat-scent” to the scent of perfume, there’s the presence of Ronald Reagan looming large in the background. Reagan represents a kind of platonic gay ideal to Alexander, as he leads the party but always looked fashionable. This is true to a point of mild obsession, with Alexander quoting him at work events and purchasing his silk ties, pins, gold vest, handkerchiefs, oxfords, loafers, V-necks, and robe. The book begins with him looking at a photo book of Reagan, trying to keep a cap on the anxieties in his life.
If Anthony’s writing is on-the-nose when it comes to the inner machinations of young Republican men, her alternative universe setting brings it more into the realm of fiction. While not immediately obvious, Alexander’s world is one where there’s a Democratic president, and a host of characters that are unwilling to let Alexander smooth talk his way out of a ticket or into a marriage. Yes, the book raises some standard commentary about our relationship to politics and the media via Tampico’s gift, but Anthony’s reflection of ourselves goes deeper. This is a world that serves, in some ways, as a salve to readers disgruntled by the last four years. Republicans (at least Alexander) are punished for betraying the public, and Democrats have enough sway to pass family leave legislature. We’re not told much about this America beyond these small glances, but it helps to explain why Alexander can’t catch a break, and why it’s so enjoyable to watch him flounder.
If Anthony’s novel has any flaws, it’s only in the brevity of the writing. While it wouldn’t make sense for the narrative to continue, the ending, unfortunately, seems abrupt and ambiguous. Alexander is left in a position that may or may not suggest the potential for growth, but that limbo is what the novel closes with. Still, even in its abruptness, there is something earned about the conclusion, as if there’s hope for Alexander to mature, even if he tries to cling to the artifice that made him such a political force in the first place.
Eric Farwell is an adjunct professor of English at Monmouth University and Ocean County College in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Esquire, Salon, GQ, Slice (forthcoming), Ploughshares, the Paris Review Daily, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Village Voice, Vanity Fair, The Believer, and Guernica.