Hair Dye Moments

Eleven days after Joe Biden won the presidential election, the Donald, still sure he had beaten “Sleepy Joe” in an electoral landslide, was looking to his loyal but somewhat erratic legal adviser, Rudy Giuliani, to put the case that Biden’s so-called win had been achieved by fraud at the polls; that the President was being driven out of office by a pervasive conspiracy.

Giuliani, speaking from a campaign room that hadn’t been cleaned since election day, an over-heated, trash-filled room with no ventilation, crowded with lights and television cameras, began sweating profusely. Dark rivulets of hair dye began running down his face. The television audience was agog. Rudy’s supposedly watertight case seemed to be leaking at the seams. And the next speaker, according to Michael Wolff’s book Landslide, uttered “not a single word that had any basis in reality”.

Donald Trump was “pissed off” by what had just taken place on his television screen. He was deeply unimpressed. His team hadn’t been aggressive enough. Then, with Socratic finesse, he put another thought to the class around him with his usual air of studious inquiry. “What’s going on with this shit dripping down his face?” Rudy was fighting, yes, but with shit dripping off his face? Where’s the art in a deal like that?

Many observers, including a sizable number on Trump’s side, saw Rudy’s “hair dye conference” as a decisive moment, the unforgettable moment of truth when the Trumpian reign really ended, although the vanquished Republican leader fought on, and is still doing so.

On any view of the incident, Giuliani’s hair dye moment will serve to remind us that we are now living in an age in which the boundaries between reality and illusion, factual and counter-factual scenarios, reasoning and rhetoric, are hard to discern, blurred by the flow of online effusions and weird images on streaming services. As it is for novelists and other dealers in the art of make-believe, the crucial factor in any story may not be what the facts dictate but whether what is said about the so-called facts is plausible. In the hands of a skilled storyteller, what seems to be far-fetched at first blush can often be rendered plausible by a graceful presentation.

This brings me to Michael Wilding’s latest novels Find Me My Enemies and Cover Story. These two works of fiction form part of a single volume, and both are centred upon inquiries conducted by Plant, an investigator well known to readers of the author’s earlier private-eye novels, a sleuth who ventures down the mean streets of Sydney and other places while exploring motives and possibilities often linked to literary shenanigans.

In Cover Story, for example, while looking into the cause of fire damage to books at a publisher’s premises, Plant tries to convince an opinionated literary confidant called Fullalove that the fire couldn’t have been the work of a disaffected poet because the firm didn’t publish poetry. “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t a psycho poet that did it,” Fullalove replies. “Could’ve been a protest that he doesn’t publish poetry. Never rule them out, poets.” Plant’s confidant goes on to suggest that the publisher may have started the fire himself, not to secure an insurance payout, but as an act of self-censorship or simply to save pulping another pile of unreadable stock. “It’s a scenario,” Fullalove surmises. “It’s a possibility.”

One is reminded by exchanges of this kind that Michael Wilding’s many achievements include not only his scholarly work as an academic and his ingenious creations as a widely admired novelist but also his years at Wild & Woolley as a publisher. This leads to Plant venturing down the even meaner streets of literary feuds and related betrayals, lanes and alleyways inhabited by envious rivals, treacherous reviewers, unreliable agents and vindictive ASIO operatives, an infamous domain oft-imagined by most writers in their darker moments. Not surprisingly, then, the title of Wilding’s novel, Find Me My Enemies, foreshadows an investigation deeply affected, at every stage, by acute paranoia.

On this occasion, Plant agrees to act for a client called Slater, a local writer angered by his current lack of success in obtaining fellowships and funding grants and publishing opportunities. Slater knows, of course, like any writer worth his salt, that this can’t be due to any lack of talent, so he wants Plant to find out who exactly is behind the conspiracy to get rid of him.

Plant soon discovers, after various encounters with denizens of the literary world, in Sydney and Pittwater, including Slater’s inscrutable partner, his evasive mistress, his disgruntled agent, his book-weary bookseller and several others, that there is a petri dish seething with plausible reasons as to why a once-respected writer, especially a wordsmith with radical views such as Slater, should be targeted by the literary thugs around him. Soon, however, when Slater’s body is found on rocks beneath an overhanging balcony—pushed or jumped or simply fell?—Plant’s inquiries turn into what might well become a murder investigation, although Fullalove is quick to point out that the so-called facts of a matter can often be trimmed to suit the paranoia of those with an axe to grind or an interest in the outcome.

Moreover, according to Fullalove, where the deceased had been writing a book about the way he was unjustly targeted by rivals or security operatives, one couldn’t assume that he was bumped off by the people in question. No, they could just make sure the book never came out or got trashed by reviewers. This would show how unprofitable it was to be an outspoken leftist writer. They wouldn’t want him dead. They needed him alive to serve as a role model as to how not to get published, how to get derided, how not to have a future.

Speculations of this kind throw up so many leads to unravelling the mysteries at the heart of each novel, that the reader, as always in the best crime fiction, is lured irresistibly onwards to the final pages. The author’s use of dialogue in presenting and teasing out the various possibilities adds an extra layer of interest in reading these two books. The air of plausible sophistry enveloping many of the verbal exchanges is a reminder of the author’s familiarity with the politically correct fads and fashions haunting university campuses and now, increasingly, other institutions.

Some of these exchanges might sound far-fetched if found between the covers of conventional crime fiction, but Michael Wilding is a skilled practitioner in this field, and is well aware, as appears from his earlier works Political Fictions and Wild About Books, that crime fiction merges with so many other forms of writing. Like Plant, many of the great investigators, such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, were independent of the state and thus allowed the possibility of making social and political critiques. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was always in a position of questioning the values of City Hall in the police department or justice system. The Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton are imbued with social, political and moral themes.

In Political Fictions Wilding observed that one of the problems for the political novelist is finding a significant issue that is innately dramatic, so that the action of the novel expresses that issue. This can be illustrated by the dire scenarios in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Issues in the latter include not only the eventual futility of Winston Smith’s resistance to authoritarian requirements, and the emptying out of language as a means of controlling thought, but also Orwell’s eerie description of dictatorship. In Orwell’s novel, totalitarian rule is so total that it even controls the only opposition to it, a pseudo-conspiracy created by the secret police as a means of entrapment or a way of forestalling dissent by the creation of a deviant book critical of the regime which has actually been written by the regime itself.

There is surely a reflection of these insights in Fullalove’s cautionary words to Plant that the security people wouldn’t necessarily want a dissident writer dead. They would prefer to keep him alive to serve as a role model to others like him of how not to have a future. With advice of this kind, Fullalove casts light on postmodern attitudes and current orthodoxies dramatised by a Plant investigation:

Fullalove trusted no one. If he had needs, he concealed them. If he had social contacts, they were unlisted. All deeds were on a need-to-know basis. Not that Fullalove was niggardly in dispensing knowledge you might need. Or even knowledge you might prefer not to know. He would generally relay details of current drone surveillance technology. Extension of internment without charge or trial legislation. Digital car recognition and its implications for unpaid fines or unrenewed insurance. Fullalove was not one to hold forth. The brevity of his phone call spoke volumes.

There is an immense pleasure of various kinds to be had in reading these two novels by Michael Wilding. His wit enlivens the crime fiction genre, and his acquaintance with other forms of literature, especially satire, constantly adds spice to Plant’s adventures and misadventures in the mean streets. On the surface, the relevant events and many of the issues to be resolved are presented with a deft ironic touch, as hair dye moments in real life often seem to require. But in the background, at a deeper level, one senses that the ironies and paradoxes reflected in the author’s skilful use of dialogue, and in the tale itself, are pointing to certain stark realities typical of contemporary times, an era in which facts and common sense are now frequently blurred by paranoia and seductive plausibility.

Was it innovations of this kind that made it difficult for Donald Trump to figure out from the murky rivulets streaming down Rudy Giuliani’s face what strange new forms of excremental art his adviser was trying to express? It’s a possibility, as Fullalove might have said. It was only a few weeks later that the man who fashioned the art of the deal was standing by as his supporters streamed into the Capitol buildings, setting the scene for an inquest bearing all the hallmarks of an unconventional but compelling Plant investigation.

Find Me My Enemies and Cover Story
by Michael Wilding

Arcadia, 2022, 406 pages, $32.95

In his latest novel, Che’s Last Embrace (Arcadia), Nicholas Hasluck looks at Che Guevara’s voice to the Australian vibe

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