Reality Trumps Satire
‘Way Beyond Satire’
by Rowan Dean
Wilkinson Publishing, 2016, 160 pages, $34.99
Reports of the death of satire have been grossly exaggerated. Indeed in an age when fact is much stranger and more preposterous than fiction, satire is still alive and has never seemed more pertinent. Despite this, some of my writer friends still contend that satire is deceased.
I do understand why some are saying this, because satire now seems to have been eclipsed by reality. Hence the timely title of Rowan Dean’s book ‘Way Beyond Satire’— a collection of satirical essays, which seems to be one of the few genuine representations of this art-form extant. In this latest selection of subversive pieces from his weekly offerings for the ‘Australian Financial Review’, Dean chronicles the absurdities of our recent political and cultural history.
‘Way Beyond Satire’ follows on from a previous selection of Dean’s satirical columns, which was published in 2013. Titled ‘Beyond Satire: Julia Caesar & the Kevin Sutra’, it documented the hugely unstable era of Rudd, Gillard, and Rudd again. For some satirists, that period of our political history was a gift.
Many Australians hoped that the craziness of Labor would make way for a stable government under an actual conservative, Tony Abbott. But when the Labor-lite Malcolm Turnbull overthrew Abbott as prime minister, little did the nation know that the mayhem had barely begun and that more material for satirists was in the offing.
Bringing his scintillating satire up to the present with scores of absorbing short essays, Dean’s ‘Way Beyond Satire’ is a romp that ruthlessly explores the years of Abbott and of Turnbull — whose primary, if not only, aim seems simply to be prime minister. Ranging from late 2013— which Dean calls “The Year of Good Riddance” — to the end of 2016, which he labels “The Year of Come Uppance”, ‘Way Beyond Satire’ is an extremely engaging tome. It ranges from advising how we can resist the pull of Gravitational Waffle and how to perform the Same-Sex Kama Sutra to exposing multitudinous cabinet leaks and how to enjoy all the Gonski that we can eat.
‘Way Beyond Satire’ also chronicles the supposed reality of sharia law in the wilds of Senator Jacqui Lambie’s Tasmania, to a historical outbreak of “Todgers” in the Lodge. As well, Dean deals with the deadly Granola virus — “a strain of radical left-wing thinking that leads to unstoppable bleeding of the hearts”. It concludes with a deeply subversive column titled “The ABC’s guide on how to survive the next four years”, which includes a scarifying exposé of how our left-wing journalists and progressive political pundits went bananas about the election of Donald Trump to the White House.
Under what has been accurately described as Dean’s “piercing gaze”, Australian politics has seldom been such fun. Yet, as with other committed satirists, Dean has a deeply serious intent. Hence, at the end of his latest offering, he urges all Australians to demand the repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Otherwise the criminalisation of free thoughts and creative utterances for supposedly causing offence and insult could cause us, as he puts it, “to lose our liberty, our freedom to express ourselves creatively, politically and satirically, our beloved larrikin sense of humour — and our souls”.
Born in Canberra in 1958, Dean, who currently edits the ‘Spectator Australia’, began his writing career in London. He understands better than most that, in the mid-twentieth century, satire rose to prominence with the success of university revues such as ‘Beyond the Fringe’ and television shows created by other Cantabridgians and Oxonians such as John Cleese and Tim Brooke-Taylor. It was a form of comedy that highlighted illogicalities by use of reductio ad absurdum, or perhaps we should say extendio ad absurdum — stretching an idea into the realm of the surreal or farcical. A perfect way to skewer society and politics.
Perhaps the best-known satirical work in the English language is Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ Swift’s device of viewing humanity from different angles, even from the point of view of animals, is perhaps the cleverest, if most eccentric and misanthropic, take on human society ever created.
The age of satire that created ‘The Frost Report’, ‘At Last the 1948 Show’, ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ and ‘Laugh-In’ seems to have drawn to a close. Only the die-hard ‘Saturday Night Live’ remains, fuelled by a constant flow of monstrous material generated by Republicans, Democrats and the huddled masses in America. In Australia satirists are still performing effectively — especially Shaun Micallef, whose last series on ABC television had a go at just about everyone and anything.
But satire is increasingly difficult because, to make an unavoidable pun, it is often trumped by reality. It has become a dismal fact of modern life that regardless how absurd comedy is, something more outrageous and absurd will actually happen to outstrip it.
Last year, with my Brisbane-based friend Ian McFadyen of ‘Comedy Company’ fame, I wrote a political-sexual satire titled ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure.’ Released by the nimble Melbourne publisher Hybrid, ‘Going Out Backwards’ was the fifth of a series of books about the exploits of a luckless and immoral academic, Dr Professor Grafton Everest, who hails from Mangoland, a fictional northern state that may or may not resemble Queensland.
In this latest episode Grafton Everest is elected, through the machinations of others, to the Australian Senate, where he holds the balance of power. He is immediately wooed by the government and the opposition and offered all sorts of positions chairing authorities and commissions for handsome remuneration. One of these sinecures is head of the Tectonic Change Commission. In the fictional world of Grafton Everest, science has discovered that human activity such as mining and jogging is accelerating continental drift, causing Australia and other continents to migrate more rapidly on the Earth’s mantle. This Crustal Sliding threatens to upset the globe and bring doom to humanity.
Yes, it’s a silly parody of Global Warming. But only a few months after our book was published, reports started to flow from America that Oklahoma was experiencing an unprecedented number of earthquakes, which was being blamed on “fracking”. It was being seriously alleged that the process of forcing rocks apart with pressurised water was actually destabilising the earth’s crust and causing earthquakes. The ink was scarcely dry on the first print-run of ‘Going Out Backwards’ before people actually started claiming that human activity was affecting tectonics. I felt like some kind of prophet.
In an earlier novel, I made Grafton Everest a Professor of LifeSkills and Hospitality at the University of Mangoland. A few months later, such a position was advertised in the Higher Education section of the ‘Australian.’ That’s what Barry Humphries’s comic creation Dame Edna Everage would call “spooky”.
The advent of Donald Trump might be seen as a massive gift to satirists but, at the same time, writers must face the question: what could they possibly make up that Trump himself could not, and probably will not, top in his role as America’s forty-fifth President? It was scarcely necessary for Tina Fey to exaggerate the inane utterances of Sarah Palin; all she had to do was repeat them. And in his impersonations, Alec Baldwin isn’t really saying anything more outrageous than what Trump has actually said.
I’m currently co-writing the sixth Grafton Everest adventure, to be called ‘So Far So Good’, in which my politically incorrect anti-hero continues to confront the absurdities of the modern world in Australia, England and America. In doing so, will we be able to match the escalating surrealism of current events?
The title of this latest Grafton Everest fiction was inspired by a real incident. Ian McFadyen took his daughter for a meal at a Chinese restaurant in Kensington, near the University of New South Wales. They were the only Europeans present. After each dish, the Chinese owner came to their table and said, “Sofa sogud” — which left McFadyen with a queasy feeling that something might be amiss, eventually.
In writing the latest Grafton Everest adventure, my collaborator Antony Funnell of ABC Radio National’s ‘Future Tense’ and I are facing a challenge. How can our comic inventions be more absurd than what is actually happening in America and the United Kingdom, and also in an Australia in which Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party continues to gather steam?
Perhaps contemporary political history has turned out to be the most inventive comedy writer of all. Yet back in the Watergate era, the enormity of President Richard Nixon’s deceptions, plots and fabrications were so extreme that novelists complained his behaviour far exceeded anything that the fictional imagination could ever put into a novel.
Michael Wilding encountered a similar problem with his campus novel ‘Academia Nuts’, published in Melbourne by Arcadia. Reality was outstripping Wilding’s wildest imaginings. The report that the vice-chancellor of one of our bigger universities had resigned because of allegations of plagiarism was more extraordinary than anything he might invent.
What amazed Wilding was that senior university management ever felt the need to claim to have written or published anything, plagiarised or not.
As he told me recently, “The media is now talking about the post-truth era. But for us it’s the post-fictional era, alas. And short of going into politics, like Grafton Everest, what future is there for a contemporary satirist?”
But Wilding may be unduly pessimistic. Without being too presumptuous, it is entirely possible that Dean, McFadyen, Micallef, Funnell and I are part of a re-emerging satire movement in Australia. The challenge for us now is to stay at least one step ahead of what used to be called “reality”.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and the author of thirty-nine books.
QUADRANT, March 2017 pp 75-77.