Enter the Aarvark is both Weird and Weighty



By Jessica Anthony

Little, Brown and Company, 179 pages.



When I began reading Enter the Aardvark, my first reaction is that it was weird for no apparent reason. As I read, though, I surrendered to its quirkiness and realized there is more to it than meets the eye. But, yes, an aardvark really is the pivot around which the novel rotates. 



The obvious part of the book is its circular structure. It toggles back and forth between a story set in the 19th century and a parallel in 2020. Let’s meet the insectivore in question. In 1875, taxidermist Titus Downing receives a heavy shipment from Namibia from his friend and sometimes lover Sir Richard Ostlet. (Both are closeted and if you wonder why, Google what happened to Oscar Wilde.)  Few in Britain had the slightest idea of what an aardvark looked, including Downing. His job is to stuff and present a beast quite unlike any he had ever tackled. Gaze upon the critter and you’ll see why. It’s what you might get if you mixed a rabbit, a pig, an anteater, a giant opossum, and something that survived the age of the dinosaurs. Downing is pleased with his work, except for the eyes and ordinary beads won’t cut it. His eventual solution is both biologically incorrect and unorthodox.


The 21st century story involves the thoroughly unlikable Representative Alexander Paine Wilson, a Republican from Virginia. Like the aardvark, Wilson is suggestive of a hybrid. He worships Ronald Reagan to the point of emulating his wardrobe, stocking his home with Reagan memorabilia, and believing he too will be president one day. Yet he’s also an obnoxious and corrupt Yuppie who knows the cost of everything–$6,000 kitchen tiles, $4,125 showerhead, $4,560 Armani suit, $339 Hermes bath towel–but the value of nothing. He is contemptuous of the public and has no trouble behaving like TV evangelists who rely on supporters to keep themselves in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. His descent into hubris begins the same way Downing’s does. He’s also a closeted gay, though he denies this even to himself: “You know you are Not Gay, and Greg Tampico is Not Gay;” just two guys who like to have oral sex with one another and like to fondle naked in bed. (This reminded of the chilling scenes involving Roy Cohn in Angels in America.) Tampico happens to be of Namibian descent and sends a Fed Ex package to Wilson’s Georgetown home just before he unexpectedly dies. Guess what’s in it.   


I am revealing nothing here, as you learn all about this before you’ve even unraveled who’s who. The novel’s crises points involve the aardvark’s eyes and who owned it between the years in which Downing stuffed it and it shows up at Paine’s home. As you might anticipate, it involves poorly kept secrets.  Enter the Aardvark is hysterical, surreal, political, and backdoor spiritual. If this sounds an unlikely combination of qualities, it probably has a lot to do with Anthony’s unlikely life. She lives in Maine now and writes novels, but as her bio informs us, she’s also been an unlicensed masseuse in Poland, an Alaskan butcher, a guard on a bridge between Slovakia and Hungary, and a secretary. In other words, her life has been as improbable as the plot to her novel.


The surface structure of Enter the Aardvark is so deceptively straightforward that it takes a few moments to discern the other things going on. It involves numerous contrasts and dualisms: ego and hubris, cynicism and morality, masked selves versus the natural selves, (mere) desire versus authentic passion, blindness and sight, cowardice and courage, fantasy and cold reality…. Nothing is wasted in a short work in which camphor, ghosts, Nazis, the Herero people, lavender marriages, and the transference of souls make appearances. When the aardvark enters, something is about to happen; when it exits, it’s time to reckon with consequences. In many ways, the concept of jiva is the novel’s glue. Like many Sanskrit terms, its English translation is more analogical than precise. It (sort of) means essence and/or living soul. Anthony uses it to raise issues of authenticity and what has a soul and what doesn’t.


Aardvarks are funny looking, but who knew they packed so much profundity in their schnozzes? You may or may not share my enthusiasm for this book, but either way you’ll have to tip your hat to its originality.


Rob Weir

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