The Speechwriter by Martin McKenzie-Murray review – larrikin maximalism and undergraduate snicker

The first novel by this former speechwriter aims to provoke but its easy parodies of Australian politics are unlikely to elicit more than a shrug

You do not have to look hard to find absurdity in Australian politics: the revolving door of national leadership; Tony Abbott and his onion; Bob Carr and his steel cut oats; Scott Morrison and his coal. Bob Katter.

This is the country where the deputy prime minister issued a televised death warrant for Johnny Depp’s toy poodles, and a state politician had to publicly deny interfering with a quokka. It’s a politics over-ripe for literary skewering. So arrives Martin McKenzie-Murray’s Canberra satire, The Speechwriter, a bombastic novel, all extravagant mishaps and choreographed banter. But what this book gains in psychotropic fizz, it loses in sharpness; it’s less a skewer than a comedic sledgehammer.

It is the near future: deep into his third term, President Trump has installed Ivanka as governor of America’s 51st state, and ordered Don Jr to hijack Air force Two and dive-bomb Disneyland (“Congress is still split on impeachment”). Closer to home, in an Australia overrun with feral cats, PlayStation consoles have become “sentient, ambulatory, and wildly murderous”. Insulated from the robot carnage inside the walls of Sunshine Correctional Centre, our narrator, Toby Beaverbrook – once the PM’s top wordsmith – has more pressing problems: his cellmate is a rowdy masturbator, and his shiv-wielding nemesis is out for blood. “Which of fate’s farts blew me to Sunshine?” he wonders. “Or are those awful winds self made?”

Embattled Toby is in the mood for “all that David Copperfield crap”, so he takes us back to the very beginning: a catastrophic bowel malfunction in the back of the family station wagon, which destroys a copy of Churchill’s speeches, but seeds a love of rhetoric. A high-school election campaign will sharpen young Toby’s oratorical ambitions and furnish him with a sneering self-regard: “While my peers were measuring their dicks,” he tells us, “I was sharpening my tongue.”

The Speechwriter follows Toby as his dreams of becoming “a balladeer for our national project” are sullied by the grubby realities of politicking. But these are no ordinary career hurdles; our ill-fated writer must contend with a hermaphroditic eel, farmyard fellatio, and sashimi laced with MDMA, not to mention an obligatory heartbreak and an office that stinks of fish. Disillusionment is a volatile beast; by the time Toby has manoeuvred his way into the inner sanctum of Aussie politics – the PM’s office – he is no longer intent on using his power for good. Orchestrated chaos reigns. But will the voters notice?

A former speechwriter himself, McKenzie-Murray’s first novel (and second book; the true-crime A Murder Without Motive, came out in 2016) combines the larrikin maximalism of Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, with a baroque profanity cribbed from Armando Iannucci. But there’s also a hefty dollop of undergraduate snicker here: colostomy bags, well-hung bulls, under-thought women, single entendre and farts-a-plenty. When Toby joins the public service, one of his colleagues is writing a script for a porn film, the other has a sweary case of Tourette syndrome.

There’s not much to be gained as a critic by finger-waggling at jokes. Humour is mightily hard to write, and not nearly enough critical attention or credit is given to authors who mine for comedy gold. But McKenzie-Murray’s picaresque gags are built on weary (and wearying) tropes: public servants are lazy; prisoners are illiterate psychopaths; voters are idiots; the arts is a feckless waste; Perth is parochial; Canberra is boring. He anticipates a hoard of furious Canberrans, writing aggrieved little letters of complaint, but The Speechwriter’s provocations are unlikely to elicit more than a shrug; we’ve heard it all before.

Alienated by the ultra-woke left and disgusted by the conspiratorial, collusive right, McKenzie-Murray tries to claim the political middle as the moral high ground. But, like its imprisoned hero, The Speechwriter can’t escape its disdain. Our political extremes are easy to parody, too easy; what’s far harder – and infinitely more necessary – is satire that prompts us to engage with our national hypocrisies; riotous yet unsparing self-reflection.

The most perceptive set pieces in this frenetic burlesque are not about bloodthirsty robots or gallery orgies, they’re entirely ordinary: the unspoken tensions of a security clearance interview; drafting a speech for the grand opening of a new toilet block; political staffers swaggering down the halls like they’re extras in The West Wing. Or the prime minister trying to untangle the knot of public hatred: “Do Australians hate me, specifically? Or is it my government? Or is it the idea of government generally?” he asks. “Because you can find data that supports each. I hear plenty of criticism of government, plenty of disgust, yet I hear constant appeals to it. Which one is it? Do voters want democracy or not?” It is here, in this perennial clash of rhetoric and expectation, where political idealism confronts the banalities of governing, that McKenzie-Murray shows us where the real farce is.

• The Speechwriter by Martin McKenzie-Murray is out now in Australia through Scribe


Beejay Silcox

The GuardianTramp

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