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A satirical ascendance to The Heights of silliness

28 December 2019 128 views No Comment

A satirical ascendance to The Heights of silliness

The Dizzying Heights
Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen
Hybrid, 248pp, $24.99
review by Ed Wright
Detail of The Dizzying Heights, by Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen.
Detail of The Dizzying Heights, by Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen.

The Dizzying Heights, the seventh in Ross Fitzgerald’s Grafton Everest series, begins with Grafton examining his penis in the mirror through the lens of its (and his) senescence. It’s a curiously blunt self-examination, exacerbated by a failure of focus that provides a counterpoint for the far more whimsical satirical confection that follows, a political romp that thoroughly disavows itself of the restrictions of reality.

For this outing Fitzgerald has teamed up again with Ian McFadyen, perhaps best known for his work with The Comedy Company and with whom he shared the writing on Going Out Backwards, the fifth in the series.

The team writing works seamlessly. The story moves outward from the poignancy of self-examination to the absurdity of Grafton’s position as the first President of the Republic of Australia. The republic has come about as a consequence of Prime Minister Scott Braggadoccio, “the sixth PM Australia had had in five years”, sensing it as an opportunity for his own political ­perpetuation.

With the direct-election presidential model frightened off by the parallel of US President Ronald Thump, Grafton is a funny mirror version of the compromise candidate, the person judged least likely of his fellow Senate members to “impose any ideological agenda, or indeed any agenda at all” upon the role of president. He is the beneficiary, in other words, of the small-target pusillanimity that bedevils our democratic process.

Detail of The Dizzying Heights by Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen.
Detail of The Dizzying Heights by Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen.

Behind Grafton’s ascendancy lurks his shadowy and seemingly immortal mentor, Mr Horton, whose agendas, in contrast to Grafton’s obsessions with his immediate appetites, are long and opaque. This plotting is similar to the other novels in the series, which deal with Grafton’s career as a politician rather than his academic roles at the University of Mangoland. As a character Grafton shares commonalities with Barry Humphries inventions such as Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone, but the comedy of manners of his early outings has become the ritualised base for the spoof comedy of the accidental and undeserved leader, a political carnivalesque in which unlikelihoods become increasingly hyperbolic. While fatuous appointments to the upper houses of Australia’s parliaments are not unknown, Grafton’s ascension to the presidency is a step beyond; his gift lies precisely in his willingness to be promoted in the service of other people’s ­agendas.

As with a lot of political decisions, the devil is in the detail and the legislation is enacted with critical loopholes that allow for backdoor operators to finagle real power from the figurehead role. This creates new opportunities for satire. Fitzgerald and McFayden have a great time poking fun at political correctness with their Department of National Well-Being, run by Grafton’s daughter’s former nanny, Neal. It starts with an NBN (National Be Nice) campaign and a national niceness audit, but the effect is invidious and by the time Grafton returns from a successful presidential tour to the US, Australia has devolved into an overly nice totalitarian state, presided over by the Department of National Well-Being and its well-armed politeness police.

This chaos somewhat cruels the fantastic success of Grafton’s official visit to America where he comes up with an off-kilter riff on Martin Luther King’s “I Had a Dream” that goes viral and leads to calls from sections of the community for Grafton to upgrade his presidency. And behind the scenes, Mr Horton, as well as offering the promise of immortality, has some intriguing news for Grafton concerning his heritage.

Fitzgerald and McFadyen have clearly enjoyed themselves in this outing and it shows on the page. This is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously and delights at times with sheer silliness. At other times the vectors of the humour veer towards the predictable, but there are moments of surprise and insight too. The satire in The Dizzying Heights is, as the title suggests, founded on hyperbole and much of the reading pleasure comes from seeing how far observable behaviour and credulity can be stretched.

Without making Grafton the new Jesus, or an emissary to an alien world, it’s hard to see where exactly Fitzgerald might take him next, so perhaps The Dizzying Heights might constitute the zenith of Grafton’s career. Yet, for the kind of longevity rarely achieved as a protagonist in Australian literature (with the exception perhaps of crime writing), Grafton Everest probably deserves a state funeral when he goes.

Ed Wright is a writer, poet and critic

The Weekend Australian, December 28-29, 2019, Review, Books, p 18.

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