The Muddle-Headed Wombat Abroad

Is there any point in being a satirist in the postmodern world, especially in present-day liberal democracies? How can one create a sense of just ridicule of social and political conduct when the daily newsfeed promises to produce examples that are more absurd than the satirist’s imagination, leaving even his or her best work the loser in a sinister game of psychic one-upmanship?

Who can better as satire the Prime Minister refusing to comment on his telephonic argument with Father Frank Brennan about the deficiencies in the “Yes” program for constitutional change with the justification that he would not reveal his conversations with Catholic priests, as if the exchange had taken place in the confessional (and he was religious)? Could Evelyn Waugh have created as the most famous #MeToo feminist in the world a person whose fame and status were procured by that most cliched of patriarchal accommodations, marrying a prince? Would Alexander Pope have had the capacity to envisage the transparent cupidities, stupidities and vapid enormities thrown up by the ghastly whirlpools of inanity that were the Bruce Lehrmann trials?

In Australia satire has never fared particularly well. When it was a tough, survivalist colony, there wasn’t a lot to laugh about, nor a society sufficiently confident to have developed an educated class capable of being both the target and audience for satire. After the gold rushes, the hardy and more successful nationalistic Australians showed a decided preference for spending their time on materialist and physical pursuits. After all, satire is the product of a refined society that has the time and curiosity to investigate itself both properly and ironically, a pastime generally avoided in Australia, if at all possible.

On top of that, the satirist has never been seen in Australia as a helpful guide to corrective thought, or an ameliorator of entrenched injustices and unthinking cruelties, but rather the problematic outsider who refuses to play along with the team project, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame—savage, extreme, rude, cruel and not to trust. To the extent that the job of satire was once a weapon in the armoury of the Fourth Estate, the practitioners of journalism have long given up any ambition to be a moral force for change, and now resemble Beatrice’s heart in Much Ado About Nothing, which stays on the “windy side of care”—laughing at every­thing but laughing at nothing—and are themselves a large part of the reason why society has lost its ethical bearings. Even the more successful satirists, like David Williamson, cannot quite make their targets squirm enough to think twice due to our disarming native habit of brushing it off and affectionately embracing the latest satirical creation as a fond tribute to an ineffably charming Downunderism.

That description could fit the hero of this ninth instalment of the Grafton Everest series of novels by Ross Fitzgerald (pictured atop this page) and Ian McFadyen. Dr Professor Grafton Everest (graft-and-ever-rest) is a less catatonic and scatological version of Sir Les Patterson, and though the product of a diseased academic system, having been a lecturer in Wellbeing and Life Skills at the University of Mangoland, he is also an Australian everyman, devoted to AFL, food and doing nothing (though there is a Fitzgeraldian twist: he does not drink); and at the same time a cultural catalyst, touring the world, in this book as the new Secretary-General of the United Nations, confronting the chaotic and mysterious procedural emptiness of the UN bureaucracy in New York (a stand-in for Pandemonium, Milton’s capital of Hell in Paradise Lost) and its relations with the most troubled countries in the globalised system of depravity over which it presides. Everest, through mishap and accident rather than intention, proves how easy it is to be a popular hands-on leader of the Free World when confronted by crises in remote authoritarian regimes.

The plot is crazy. Everest is pursued by a suspicious biographer, Lilith, with whom he co-operates guardedly, given his edgy past; he comes to believe there is a conspiracy surrounding the death of his predecessor in office linked to some group called Pandæmonium (spelt with an ash); travels hungrily to Iota (the smallest country in Africa—“a lot of these pissant countries have shitloads of rare metals which everyone and his dog are now busting their arses to get their hands on”, explains Tony Murphy, Everest’s UN guide and fellow countryman, with biological precision), a Peruvian earthquake site in Lima (where Everest becomes an international media hero by helping to pick up some bricks), Wansomoa in the Pacific (with its extinct volcano, Launa Moa), and Panama (where only Everest is wearing a panama hat). He is kidnapped twice, gets lost in the jungle and is (or may have been) date-raped. The action and the conspiracies all end in a Götterdämmerung of Ikean tackiness, as one might expect, in a Norwegian fjord in the last chapter, “Australia Rules”.

As Nabokov wrote, satire is a lesson, and parody is a game. Pandemonium is an enjoyable comic romp, but one reason why it is not quite a full-blooded example of the genus satire is the character of Everest himself. Not only is he a parody, but he treats life as a game. He consciously sets out to be the greedy devourer of any food on offer, the back-slider avoiding work responsibilities, the corpulent slob whose curiosity and concern extend only to those matters that may cause him more effort or trouble than he wants. When forced to give his first speech to The Most Important Organisation on the Planet, the theme of which is how polarised the world has become, Everest bathetically suggests that the solution is football: “he took off his jacket, revealing his black and white striped Collingwood jumper”, and explains to the 193 delegates, accompanying support staff and interpreters:

The only polarity in football lies in the two goals at opposite ends of the field. But even these, while they are spatially opposed, are not separate goals. They represent the same aims, the same aspirations for both teams, just as all people in the world share the same aspirations. The proof that these goals are the same is shown by the fact that they can be, and are, swapped from one end to the other during the game.

Grafton is also a device for commonsense thoughtfulness exposing the absurdities and unintended consequences of wrong-headed humanitarianism, represented and pursued by global NGOs, disingenuous and counter-productive environmentalists and crony capitalism:

Suddenly Grafton realised that this was what he had sensed sitting through the meetings that day. All of the environmental initiatives that were discussed involved curtailing, limiting or heavily modifying economic development in developing countries. No limits were being proposed for the industrialised countries. The only initiative in the West was the transition to renewable energy which, rather than putting the brakes on their economic development, was creating a boom in new non-carbon technologies.

“Eden”, said Grafton. This was exactly what he was thinking about earlier. The environmental movement was an attempt to get back to Eden. To regain Paradise—though not at the expense of your local shopping mall.

Everest has an almost sweet, at times naive, line in banal rumination:

Maybe, he thought, male lovers should be called “misteresses”. It was not a bad idea but he doubted he would ever get to effect the change. There was no official Language Committee you could submit an application to. There was no court for language other than the Court of Public Opinion, and that was a court one should never apply to. The Court of Public Opinion has no presumption of innocence.

And here, on his wife, Janet:

“She ornaments my life,” he continued poetically, “and I ornament hers.” As far as he was concerned, if the definition of an ornament is an object with no actual function that sits around the house, the reasons for its acquisition and retention now totally forgotten, this was true.

Everest can resemble nothing so much as the Muddle-Headed Wombat. As Ian McFadyen has said, a common factor in all Grafton Everest’s adventures is that he “has no idea how he got into these situations nor what he is supposed to do, but somehow he not only survives but succeeds”. This is to invite the reader to warm to the protagonist just as importantly as to register the ridicule of those around him. There is no doubt that the hokey, simplistic tendency in Everest is intended to provide contrast with the complicated venality he is confronted by, but the focus on Everest’s personality is a distraction. For this reviewer, I wondered whether Barry Humphries may have done a disservice to the satirical aspirations of the books by praising Everest as a “wonderful creation” on par with Portnoy and Lucky Jim. The point about Portnoy was that his guilt rendered him impotent and about Lucky Jim that he was not lucky, whereas Everest is almost inevitably successful and lucky.

And then there is the fact that, unlike Captain Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels, Everest is not used to undermine his own compatriots. His former teacher, Lee Horton, now a brain in a fishtank, and the ocker Murphy (“he had the boozy ruddy complexion of a test cricketer and a tie which may or may not have had kangaroos on it”), are kind and well-meaning characters, who suffer no damage at the hands of the authors. If there is a lesson here, it is the old sentimental Australian lesson that we are a kind of noble savage whose freedom from the world’s guile is a matter for congratulation.

There are some passages in which the authors are prepared to lay into contemporary Sydney, such as when Everest dwells momentarily on the shenanigans of the modern art world, in which his daughter, Lee-Anne, is a player:

But that fashion had now been surpassed by the even more exciting concept of “Stolen Objects”. These works were also everyday items, except that they were infused with a thrilling tension from having been obtained by theft. They raised a myriad of exciting questions about the nature of property, owning and being owned, transgression, illegitimacy and marginalisation, and were invested with powerful meanings from having been possessed, then de-possessed, sometimes repossessed. They had a profound effect on gallery patrons, especially when they recognised them as being articles that were actually their own.

Here one senses the sting of the bee, which existed even in Eden. Grafton Everest, come home and save Australia.

by Ross Fitzgerald & Ian McFadyen

Hybrid Publishers, 2023, 297 pages, $32.99

Matthew White SC is a Sydney lawyer

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