PANDEMONIUM

By Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen

Hybrid Publishers: Melbourne

ISBN – 9781922768131

RRP: $32.99

Reviewed by Ken Spillman

 

The late Barry Humphries knew a thing or two about creating memorable characters. It’s notable, then, that the front cover of Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen’s latest collaboration, Pandemonium, quotes Humphries’ view that “Grafton Everest is a wonderful creation”.

And, so he is. In this latest satire, the world-weary Grafton’s escapades stem from his baffling appointment as Australia’s first Secretary-General of the United Nations. Pandemonium is wildly imaginative, and chucklesome from start to finish.

My introduction to Grafton Everest as the anti/hero protagonist of social and political satires came in 1979. I was a young researcher working with Fitzgerald as he wrote his ground-breaking and controversial history of Queensland. Knowing me to be an avid reader, Fitzgerald asked for comment on draft chapters of a novel-in-progress.

The foolscap pads he handed to me, filled with his handwriting on alternate lines, brought to life the kind of character I had only encountered in the work of Tom Sharpe and, to a lesser extent, P.G. Wodehouse. I recall telling Fitzgerald this – and was pleased when those manuscripts were refined into his first Grafton novel, Pushed from the Wings (1986).

Even so, I little imagined that three Grafton satires would be published by 1990 and that I’d one day be reviewing the ninth. Three of the last four adventures have been co-authored by Ian McFadyen, the first of their collaborations being Going Out Backwards (2015). Shortlisted for the biennial Russell Prize for Humour Writing, Going Out Backwards marked the commencement of a gradual shift from academic settings to the political arena.

If this progression has not yet attracted more attention to the series, it should – and I believe will over time. Incisive satire reflects a healthy, self-aware and self-critical society. It’s no surprise that it tends to thrive in liberal democracies (albeit constrained by political correctness) while satirists under totalitarian regimes are very quickly “disappeared”.

Australian socio-political satires can attract strong television audiences (think Utopia, the ABC TV series written by Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner, long a point of reference in workplace conversations) but political satire tends be marginalised as a literary genre.

Eight years ago, writer and cultural critic Sam Twyford-Moore wrote: “Australian authors show off their satirical chops on social media every day. So why doesn’t more of that wit spill on to the published page?”

It’s a very good question. I don’t know the answer, but perhaps part of the reason is that writers in Australia struggle so hard for recognition and reward that their deepest desire is to be taken seriously. To most writers, this means moving, challenging or inspiring people. To many, sadly, funny isn’t serious.

Fitzgerald and McFadyen are serious – and seriously funny. They seem a match made in the heavens of political satire, with Fitzgerald now an Emeritus Professor of History and Politics and McFadyen a veteran writer of sketch comedy with TV credits including The Comedy Company (1988) and The Wedge (2006). Fitzgerald has described writing with McFadyen as “a hoot”.

The sky’s been the limit for Grafton in recent books. Elected to the Australian Senate in Going Out Backwards, he became President of the IRA (Inclusive Republic of Australia) in The Dizzying Heights (2019) and was even hailed as a possible saviour of the United States after the assassination of President Ronald Thump.

The Lowest Depths (2021) saw Grafton’s first foray into the realm of the United Nations, assigning him to a fact-finding trip to Russia which found more lies than facts. Now, Pandemonium takes him to the beating heart of the organisation in New York. Grafton finds a structure that is Byzantine beyond belief.

Why he’s been chosen as UN Secretary-General is beyond Grafton’s reckoning. To him, it seems “a matter of just randomly selecting people from different countries like some sort of global secret-Santa”.

As McFadyen himself said in 2022, “The common factor in all these adventures is that Grafton has no idea how he got into these situations nor what he is supposed to do, but somehow he not only survives but succeeds.”

In Pandemonium, the bumbling Grafton endures kidnappings and assassination attempts by a conspiracy within the ranks of the UN. He also finds himself part of a secret program to protect western influence and promote democratic values in the developing world.

Fitzgerald and McFadyen roll out a colourful cast of characters from all parts of the globe. None, however, are more colourful than another Australian, a rough-edged long-term diplomat who appoints himself Grafton’s chief adviser. ‘Which code do you follow?’ Tony asks Grafton – a coded question only an Australian would understand.

The pair find common, oval-shaped ground in the AFL and, more specifically, its least colourful team, the Collingwood Magpies. This seemingly trivial conversation morphs unexpectedly – and bizarrely – into an important plot point. Tony proves to have been an effective envoy, particularly in the tiniest of African nations, Iota.

A former French, German and finally British colony, Iota happens to be mineral rich. Tony explains to Grafton that “certain countries, which shall remain nameless, but which rhyme with Blusher and Eyeliner, are seeking to turn Iota into a client state by offering generous investments, which is to say bribes”.

As an Australian diplomat, Tony’s work has been premised on the fact that, while “Australia doesn’t have a lot of dough… we’ve got other things we can offer”. These have included trade arrangements, development deals, support for education, and lucrative stipends and scholarships to study in the land of Oz.

Grafton is pleased to know that Tony consummated relations by taking sports-loving President Ngambo Mbota to an AFL match involving Collingwood. His pitch to Mbota was that soccer was emblematic of colonisation, while Aussie Rules stood “bravely alone against the imperialist global sports machine”.

Grafton learns that Mbota had an epiphany, promptly changing his first name to Daryl (Dazza), swearing allegiance to Collingwood, and commencing an “Australification” (Grafton’s word) of Iota.

“It’s cultural diplomacy, mate,” Tony tells Grafton. “That’s how you form alliances… Mate, we’re in the same position as the missionaries of the nineteenth century, except we’re not brainwashing them with some repressive bullshit, we’re bringing them a better way of life. You have to enhance people’s cultures.”

Grafton’s arrival at Dazza’s presidential palace – in a Holden Statesman – is hilarious. He and Tony are ushered along a corridor hung with posters of Collingwood players:

At the end of the corridor they entered what was clearly throne room, evidenced by fact that it contained an ivory throne on which President Dazza Mbota of Iota was sitting, He was wearing a bejewelled crown and a lion skin under which a black and white striped jumper was clearly visible. He rose from his seat, a broad smile on his face, and strode forward. 

“Tony Murphy!” he declared in a rich African accent, ‘How are you, you old bastard?’

He shook hands vigorously with Tony who turned to introduce Grafton.

“Daz, this is who I want you to meet. The new Secretary-General of the United Nations, Grafton Everest. His father played for Collingwood.”

President Mbota turned and walked towards Grafton with a look of such reverence that, for a moment, Grafton thought he was going to bow before him. ”I am so pleased to meet you, you old bastard. You are so welcome in Iota,” he said solemnly. “A great pleasure…” said Grafton, shaking his hand. He then glanced at Tony who was silently mouthing “you old bastard… you old bastard.”

Mort Sahl, a Canadian-born trailblazer in the style of stand-up comedy that lampoons politics and current affairs, believed that nothing is off-limits to the true satirist. Fitzgerald and McFadyen imbibe this spirit and gaily take swipes in all directions.

Political correctness around gender identity and child rearing, cashless society and cryptocurrency, the sway of Hollywood in shaping world views, colonialism, trends in modern art, dress codes and bionic medicine are among their targets – and that’s in the first chapter alone!

Two of the earlier Grafton Everest adventures were subtitled “An Entertainment” which, I suspect, was tantamount to a declaration of ineligibility for major awards, the Australian literary scene being what it is. Entertainment is to be found on every page of Pandemonium, but it would be a grave mistake to regard the novel as frivolous.

Grafton’s experience of the world reminds us of the most farcical aspects of getting by in the twenty-first century, as well as our own foibles. With Grafton now very senior, Pandemonium also provides insightful commentary on ageing.  At one point, Grafton reflects: “You are not to blame for having a sagging worn-out body, but sagging worn-out underpants are a mark of shame.”

Pandemonium is a fine, thought-provoking book, offering absurdism on a plate with a considerable amount of wordplay. Its core strengths are the authors’ exceptional powers of observation and something they clearly share with Grafton, who is “sceptical of all ideologies”. The breadth of research that underpins the satire is breathtaking.

Fitzgerald and McFadyen’s prose is exceptionally well-edited and tight as a drum. Comedic timing is a feature. Just when a scene is at risk of being overplayed, you’ll be refreshed with what Stephen E. Kercher referred to as “the cleansing lash of laughter”.

Having said all this, it may seem churlish to take issue with the publisher’s cover. To me, the design disgracefully undersells the book with amateurish cartoon imagery. It looks static, witless and dated. Previous Grafton Everest covers have not been much better, and I suspect this has contributed to the series being more of a cult hit than a mass phenomenon.

I’d like to think that a re-release of the entire Grafton Everest series will, in future, rectify this. In the meantime, don’t judge Pandemonium by its cover. As Molly Meldrum often said, “Do yourself a favour”. This is the best Grafton Everest satire yet.

Pandemonium and the previous satirical adventures of Grafton Everest are available from  https://hybridpublishers.com.au at $32.99

__________________________________________________

Dr Ken Spillman was a long-time literary critic for The West Australian. He is the author of more than 100 books spanning many genres, and his children’s fiction has been published on four continents. Spillman co-compiled three collections of writing with Ross Fitzgerald, including The Greatest Game (1988), a seminal collection of literature on Australian Rules football. His latest book, co-authored by Peter Dowding, is Secret Agent, Unsung Hero (2023), the biography of an Australian beheaded by the Nazis in 1943.