My cultural life: Jessica Anthony

The Enter the Aardvark novelist discusses the parallels between Daniel Defoe’s Plague Year and ours, and the ‘woefully flawed vegetarian nudist’ protagonist of her favourite recent novel.

Jessica Anthony
Jessica Anthony
Photo: Matt Cosby

Jessica Anthony’s novels are always worth the wait. Her debut, The Convalescent, won the inaugural McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award back in 2004. Bordering on magical realism, it tells the tale of a small, grubby man who sells meat out of a bus in America, while flashing back to medieval Hungary.

Her innovative second novel, Chopsticks, came in 2012 and was a multimedia narrative about a piano prodigy told through words, pictures and memorabilia, made available as both a traditional paperback and an app.

Her third novel, Enter the Aardvark, is more conventional in form, if not storyline. It delves into the life of Republican congressman Alexander Paine Wilson and the life-changing day he receives a taxidermied aardvark in the post.

We got in touch with Anthony to ask about the cultural artefacts that have piqued her creativity of late.

Film: All That Heaven Allows

All That Heaven Allows, a treacly Douglas Sirk picture from 1955, is an inverted May-December romance where an older widow (Jane Wyman) falls in love with her mammoth, tree-loving, large-chinned gardener (Rock Hudson) – who adores her right back – and convinces her to marry him and live in his refurbished ‘old mill’. The film is far too fantastical to be believed for all kinds of reasons (the characters are caricatures, their dialogues are laughably pointed) but Sirk’s cinematography, his kaleidoscopic use of light and colour, is so powerful that the film can be very enjoyably reimagined as a sexual fantasy of an aging woman who gradually realises after her husband dies that she dislikes her children, her neighbours, and her friends ­– and leaves them all to go live in an old mill by herself.

All That Heaven Allows
'All That Heaven Allows', photo: Getty Images

Fiction: Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas by Christian Kracht

Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas by Christian Kracht (translated by Daniel Bowles) is a rich, historically accurate, satiric tale of the stupidity of human extremism. Kracht’s unreliable hero is the real-life August Engelhardt, a woefully flawed vegetarian nudist in the early 20th century who left Nuremberg for the island of Kabakon to start a colony worshipping coconuts. The conceit brought me to the novel, but I stayed for the prose, the irony, and the glorious denouement.

Non-fiction: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

I’m currently reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, a wild, novelistic amalgam of first-hand observations and personal accounts of the bubonic plague in London in 1665, when Defoe himself was just five years old. It’s astonishing to find so many parallels and commonalities in the patterns of thought and human behaviour between then and now. And the book, published in 1722, is made more compelling by Defoe’s gonzo instinct to deliver his report through a first person narrator, a single man who often wonders about his own case within the case of all humanity: ‘whether I should resolve to stay in London or shut up my house and flee’.

Music: “Stoner Hill” by Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band

This live performance of the dulcet “Stoner Hill,” in particular, which Blade elected to play from his album Seasons of Change, is a masterpiece of motif and gesture. I listen with headphones.

Theatre: Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress

Trouble in Mind, a brutally funny two-act postmodern play written by Alice Childress in 1955, follows Wiletta, a middle-aged African American woman who is constantly forced to play racist tropes of middle-aged African American women. The play-within-a-play structure ironically hyperbolizes the problems of white liberal interpretations of the Black experience in American theatre, and it’s pure pleasure how Childress steers us between moments of wit and hilarity to the awful truth, and back again, in seconds. 


Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony is out 23 April.

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