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Review: The aardvark stays in the picture

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.

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