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Academic satire cuts to the bone

29 October 2011 1,165 views No Comment

Academic satire cuts to the bone

TOM Waits, the greatest composer-performer of our era, is said to have recoiled from the film This is Spinal Tap because it came too close to the reality of musical touring. My initial negative reaction to reading Fools’ Paradise, which tells the story of a middle-aged humanities scholar in a thinly disguised Queensland – sorry, “Mangoland” – university, is based on a similar feeling. And although that feeling remained, it took on more positive hues before I had finished reading this novel.

For a work of satire, to the credit of co-authors Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor Jordan, this cuts close to the bone, especially the exchanges between academics and research administrators regarding budgets, amid a growing privatisation of the tertiary education sector and the commoditisation of research, and the effects of all this on the paranoia of academics.

At one point someone asks our hero, Grafton Everest, if he’d ever consider writing a novel, a “roman a clef of university life”, and he replies that it would be too dangerous, but not because his fellow scholars would be upset by its contents. “‘Not at all. Most of my colleagues don’t read. I’d be scared that they’d think I’ve got too much time on my hands.” But the satire extends beyond the walls of academe into the media mainstream and then the side puddles of Australian politics. And as we follow Everest from one to the other, it is like being led into the widening circles of hell.

Everest, for example, really does have too much time on his hands. He has his own TV breakfast show segment (Wake Up, Australia!) and his own late-night radio show (A Word to the Wise) which he uses, alternately, to rant against the malaise of Australian culture and to sob public apologies to his wife and daughter for not being able to resist the temptations and distractions that are an inevitable by-product of the malaise of Australian culture. “You used to be a real political commentator,” wife Janet tells him at one point. “Now you’re just an entertainer and media whore. Most of what you say these days is bullshit.”

And it gets deeper still when he gets more directly involved in state politics. From the former premier who wants Everest to cover up his past crimes, to the sitting premier who is (unsuccessfully) covering up his homosexual misdemeanours. There is also proliferation of new political parties, erected around the egos and self-interest of their leaders. The former premier starts his own religion and uses this religion to form a new political party (for tax-free status). The sitting, disgraced premier steps down only to start his own conservative Gay Shooters Party. And then there’s Everest, “hated by the Right, despised by the Left, and surrounded by an amorphous middle”, trying to cut an independent path through it all.

The novel begins with Everest considering his material and popular success, only to ask his dog: “Yet, why do I feel so empty?”, and it is this question that drives the plot of Fools’ Paradise, as well as being the source for much of its satire.

For it is this emptiness that lies at the heart of the malaise — a sort of national mid-life crisis — that he experiences, rails against, and often falls short of overcoming. Fitzgerald and Jordan seem to have taken to heart Samuel Beckett’s favourite Irish adage: in the last ditch, all you can do is laugh.

And it is a humour that plays in various keys. From the subtle, such as the pointed use of the possessive in the book’s title, to the not-so-subtle: “We’re surrounded by post-Foucauldian idiots rabbiting on about the ‘carceral’, how every bit of discourse enslaves us. They should be locked up. All of them.”

Then there is the not-subtle-at-all, such as when someone refers to themselves as a SNAG (sensitive new age guy) and Everest suggests they are more a “Caring Understanding Nurturing Type”. But it is a humour that, fortunately, does little to sugar the satirical pill this novel otherwise delivers.

Matthew Lamb is a Brisbane-based reviewer.

The Weekend Australian, October 29 -30, 2011, Books pp 24-25

Fools’ Paradise By Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor Jordan Arcadia, 233pp, $24.95

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