A Surreal and Outrageous World: Jessica Anthony in Conversation with Joshua Ferris

May 8, 2020 | 1 book mentioned 10 min read

Jessica Anthony’s surreal and outrageous Enter the Aardvark published on March 24 into a surreal and outrageous world. In the months leading up to publication, the novel saw an outpouring of love from indie booksellers, and Anthony had a tour planned with events in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Houston, and Denver, among other cities. She was particularly looking forward to a night at Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore, where she would have been joined in conversation by Joshua Ferris, a novelist she has long admired. It was an ideal pairing: Both Ferris and Anthony take aim at the absurdities of modern life in their work, walking the line between satire and soul and managing to be wickedly funny and greathearted at once. Luckily for readers, not even a pandemic could stop their conversation.

Ferris has said that Enter the Aardvark “estranges all over again our deplorable political moment, and thereby helps make it bearable.” Now, as the state of the world gets more deplorable every day, Anthony and Ferris aim to make it a little more bearable with this discussion of the exit of reason, Venetian dolphins, horses who eat cars, and how to resist the temptation to opt out of the world.     

Joshua Ferris: Hello, Jessica. I’ve been so excited for such a long time now to speak to you in person and get to know the mind behind your new novel, Enter the Aardvark. Alas, the coronavirus came along and dashed our plans.

Jessica Anthony: The virus is a mega-dasher, unlike any we have seen before. It was a strange and peculiar thing to watch the book tour fall away after spending years writing and editing the novel. It sort of felt like being 10 feet from the finish line of a five-year-long marathon and then getting tackled by a linebacker who appears out of nowhere. (First football analogy I have ever used.) I’m sure we are all swapping virus stories, but mine began March 3. I was planning on going to AWP when the mayor of San Antonio declared the city was in a state of emergency, and I was torn about attending. Back then—you know, three weeks ago—there was still quite a bit of uncertainty about the degree to which the virus would be a problem in the States. (This was just two days before Trump was saying he would prefer the souls on the Grand Princess cruise simply stay put to prevent “rising numbers” that would fuck with the stock market, and then lying about the availability of testing.) So I made the call not to go. Ten days later, the college where I teach was closed, and my book tour evaporated.

Josh, I was so looking forward to meeting you in person, as I’ve devoured your novels for years. Missing out on our conversation at Greenlight Bookstore was honestly one of the biggest disappointments for me. But at this point, where we are now, with everyone talking online (two days after Trump offered up the true character of whatever we might call the “Trump Doctrine:” “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”)—well, I’m just feeling grateful waking up every day that the people closest to me have so far eluded this awful thing, looking for ways to help, glad that the Internet seems to be finally showing its fullest use and purpose. A virtual book tour didn’t exist last month, and now everyone’s doing them. My first event, we had 100 people join from all over the country…it was actually a pretty extraordinary, novel experience.

JF: Your novel involves a stuffed aardvark, a closeted Victorian-era naturalist and his taxidermist lover, the ghost of that naturalist, his widow, and, in a completely different timeline, the deeply closeted Republican Congressman and Reagan acolyte Alexander Paine Wilson who, once gifted the stuffed aardvark, sees everything around him crumble.

But before we get to all that, I hope I can convince you to do me a favor. One of my favorite things about your book is your expert capacity to reduce enormous amounts of cosmic time into a succinct paragraph or two that appears to explain the aardvark, or the eyeball, or really whatever your imagination alights upon. Can I get you to summarize the current state of the world vis-a-vis the coronavirus with a brief Anthonian paragraph that includes the phrase “Enter the virus”?

JA: Enter the virus, exit any plans you had for, oh, like, the next six months. Exit intimacy. Exit the toilet paper and watch your lazy, spray-tanned president assure the People that everything is going to be okay, that “anyone who wants a test can get a test,” while, like, Fox News cries out hoax, while senators Burr, Loeffler, et al secretly sell their stock, buy into telecommunications, and Tom Hanks gets it, Rand Paul votes against fighting it and then gets it, and as countries shut down, one-by-one, read an article in the Times warning us that like, more of us will die if we don’t worry about our dollars, watch Steve Martin play the banjo, and when the Fed coughs up an answer: the “money-printing presses are fired up and ready to go!” exit reason, you think, and remember that reason is like, totally gone. The very notion of Reason, it exited a long time ago…

JF: Excellent. You really do have this remarkable ability in the book to synthesize enormous amounts of factual information while keeping everything brisk and entertaining. Where does that impulse come from? Have you seen something similar in other writers?

JA: I could ask you a similar question! Voice. I started out writing poems. I was trained to write syllabically. I hear a sound in contemporary tech-speak as I do in contemporary political speech and in, like, Millennial speech. I suppose I want to read a voice that speaks language the way that I hear language, which means sometimes hearing “multitudinous seas incarnadine” and sometimes “I put my thing down/Flip it/And reverse it.” I want language in a novel to be egalitarian. Mostly though, the pace and sound happened naturally when I realized that I would be writing a novel that would happen over the course of two days. In less than two days, a gigantic taxidermied aardvark would somehow completely ruin a politician’s career. The voice had to be fast, and reflect in some way the speed of Alex’s indictment, which is hastened by his own vanity, blindness—but also by our very modern thirst for “cancelling” human beings out of our public spaces. So what has stunned me, too, about this virus, is how it’s forced us all to stop. There’s barely any traffic. The skies are clearing. People are being charitable to one another, at least so far. As my friend Deb Olin Unferth pointed out: dolphins are swimming again in the canals of Venice. The pace of Enter the Aardvark speaks to the moment just before this, when we were all just always moving, and now that we’ve stopped, it’s really a shock to the system. In some ways, then, the pace is a kind of warning. We are all rushing, not looking, and living in a time when our systems and leaders cannot be trusted to safely guide us. Everything is risky. Which is all to say that I want fiction to pay attention the way that I have to pay attention. To do otherwise feels like a lie.

JF: The aardvark, after a valiant battle, loses her life to an African hunter, is shipped to England, stuffed, displayed and sold, travels to Germany and then to America where it prompts a political scandal, and from there is finally restored to its—but no spoilers here. Tell us a little more about this aardvark—aardvark-as-invention, aardvark-as-plot-device.

JA: The aardvarks, with their long ears, tubular snouts, thick tails, are creatures that sort of look like they defy reason. They appear marvelous, in the surrealist sense, and are one of the oldest, most “evolutionarily distinctive” mammals on earth. I began imagining a kind of tension between these two irrational-seeming characters who both occur in nature, and have not evolved: the ancient aardvark and the modern-day politician. To “enter the aardvark” (a phrase which is recontextualized several times in the novel) meant that literally, yes, a gigantic taxidermied aardvark would enter a millennial congressman’s life, setting into motion a series of chaotic events that would hasten a spectacularly fast downfall—but it also meant entering into a hyperbolized 21st-century state of mind; one which has evolved in response to a distinct set of circumstances which ask us to ignore or repress our innermost desires in preference for a constant state of image-making. I am reminded of a Grace Paley quote from her speech in 1982 about the global movement for women’s equality: “We are in the hands of men whose power and wealth have separated them from the reality of daily life and from the imagination. We are right to be afraid.” The aardvark—irrational, everlasting—emerged as the symbol of the perfect political hypocrite in a time of rampant hypocrisy. There is the donkey, the elephant. And then there are aardvarks.

The aardvark in the novel exists very much on her own terms as a living being, then as an object of Titus Downing—the taxidermist’s—affection, then as a perverse prize, then as a totem of hope. One of the founders of Surrealism, poet and novelist Andre Breton, believed in the “convulsive” beauty of objects, which can only occur by “affirming the reciprocal relations” between an object in motion and the object at the moment of the “expiration” of that motion. The aardvark both moves and is expired in the novel, at which point it moves again, but differently; just as the phrase “enter the aardvark” is recontextualized in the telling, so is the way in which the stuffed aardvark—now an expired object—situates itself, disturbing Alex.

Why? Because the aardvark, once stuffed, is a work of imagination. For a guy like Alex, who rides on vanity and privilege, and who never had much use for his imagination, the bizarre aardvark is, among many other things, a terrifying reminder to him of everything that he is not.

JF: Wilson is a familiar figure from our current crop of congressional Republican scum-a-dumbs. Yet he is not totally devoid of a moment or two in which he nearly ekes out from the feeling reader a half-drop of pity. Was that inevitable, or did you have to work hard to arrive there?

JA: The question of who is more vulnerable, who is more deserving of our empathic focus, Alex or those he oppresses, gets right at the heart of Enter the Aardvark. I was interested in writing a character I haven’t seen—a politician at the mercy of his own politics. What makes room for us to feel something, maybe, for Alex Wilson is the fact that he simply doesn’t believe in, or even remotely care about, what he votes for. And he doesn’t think about why it matters that he does or doesn’t believe it. For example, early in the novel, being anti-abortion is named as a key part of his “platform,” but Alex has never once imagined an abortion, and doesn’t actually care about it in the exact way that he does not believe in God, but will say he does “to appease evangelicals.” So here was a man, I realized, who unthinkingly embraces policies that hurt so many people simply because even having to think about voting otherwise would be…politically inconvenient. (Of course, these “inconveniences” are hurting him, but to see himself honestly would be antithetical to his political goals.)

Ironically, his lack of belief in it all, his nihilism, if you can call it that, made him more human to me than if he actively hated other people to the extremes we see from the GOP nowadays. His racism, sexism, intolerance…it feels rote. Extremely immature. His attitude of disregarding or disparaging others who aren’t immediately useful to him as a politician? That way of living in the world—opting out—is a danger for all of us, and is frankly something I’ve seen widely in the United States, not just in Alex, which is maybe where the half-drop of pity appears. And of course we also know, even if Alex doesn’t, that he identifies with a political party that does not support his sexual preference. It’s one of the many subterranean cruelties running through the novel that had to force itself to the front of his consciousness—or closer to the front of his consciousness—by the end.

JF: Enter the Aardvark is slyly didactic, especially toward the end, when dumb-ass Wilson repeats Reagan’s dumb-ass disparagement of government assistance (“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”), eliciting strong accusations of hypocrisy from the women in the room. Yet this book is entirely too delightful to be dictated by white-hot rage alone. What was the operating mix?

JA: The women existed in the margins at first, but they eventually revealed themselves to be the novel’s moral agents and directors. I love the women in the novel (or, I should say, most of them). The women are largely in defiance of Alex’s scorn and derision, and they are the only people who stand to reveal to Alex the severity of his hypocrisy. They also act as his lone opportunity for redemption. Of course, he can’t realize that he is the same kind of American citizen as these women; that he is himself oppressed by the same votes he casts which oppress them. To Alex, there are simply ambitious white men like him—and then there are “women and minorities.” So by the end of the novel, fate has ruled against Alex Wilson, yet he still can’t see that he, too, is part of the majority populace with the rest of us “women and minorities.” But he is, maybe, closer to seeing. Marjorie Pinkwater and her posse of part-timers at the Library of Congress are simply saying out loud to Alex what women across America want to say to the GOP every day.

JF: Tell me about your willingness to guard foreign bridges, and why the act might be helpful to writing novels.

JA: Yes. I served as a “bridge guard” for the Maria Valeria Bridge, connecting the towns of Štúrovo, Slovakia, and Esztergom, Hungary, over the Danube, while finishing Enter the Aardvark. The bridge has an amazing history. It was destroyed in WWI, then rebuilt. The Nazis bombed it again, and it was left that way, obliterated, separating the two towns for over 60 years. When the bridge was finally rebuilt in October of 2001, an artist in residency was established to guard it against the reappearance of fascism through the act of creation. “The mental act of guarding,” the organization says, “is more important than the physical.”

The position is for three months, and you live in an apartment under the bridge on the Slovak side. The days were long and slow and boring, the perfect climate for novel writing, and were punctuated only by the Friday nights when the “V2 Rock Pub” next door played Metallica covers, or some other occasional, strange event. (Once, in the middle of the night, I awoke to a series of loud, crunching sounds, and followed the noise to the bathroom window. I stared out at two moonlit wild horses, eating the tires of a car.)

On my mind throughout that summer were notions of bridging literally, as I crossed the bridge once a day, and metaphorically. I love that you instinctively understood the import of a job like this to novel writing! I found it incredibly healthy to be thinking about bridges while ending the novel. I don’t know if you feel this way, Josh, but for me in fiction, if something appears twice, it becomes true. I often teach as a pairing the brilliant short stories “Brownies” by ZZ Packer and “Sh’khol” by Colum McCann; both introduce an expectation and not only answer but completely subvert that expectation by the end. (Flannery O’Connor was probably our most gifted subverter.) Revising, completing, to me, absolutely means ensuring that the bridge between the beginning and ending is intact, and intractable. I’ll often reread a novel’s opening after completing it. If the novel is intact, the beginning will reveal, obliquely, some sense of the ending. By the end of Enter the Aardvark, Alex Wilson, the “whirling mass of vapors,” remains “unhinged.”

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Human Resources: On Joshua Ferris
A Year in Reading: Joshua Ferris

JESSICA ANTHONY is the author of The Convalescent, Chopsticks, and Enter the Aardvark. Her short stories can be found in Best New American Voices, Best American Nonrequired Reading, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. || JOSHUA FERRIS's first novel, Then We Came to the End, has been translated into 24 languages. His fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and Best American Voices. Ferris was chosen for the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list of fiction writers in 2010.

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