Tag Archives: satire

Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World (1993) – Donald ANTRIM

It’s hard to know where to begin a review about a book like Elect Mr Robinson. We could talk about the scathing and biting social satirical tone of the whole work, lending it a kind of Desperate Housewives-on-steroids feeling. We could talk about the bizarre extended hallucinations of the main character, in which he is a buffalo living underwater with his fish wife. We could even talk about the shocking ending, which places Elect Mr Robinson firmly in the Easton Ellis school of late 80s/early 90s American violence literature.

I suppose we should start, though, at the beginning. From the very first page, there is a sense of unease as one plunges into the Donald Antrim’s world. Having killed off the previous mayor (the body now resides in his freezer, dismembered), Mr Pete Robinson has eyes on the job for himself. He thinks he, a third-grade teacher recently unemployed, is most suitable, despite his unusual obsession for medieval torture techniques, a hobby that manifests itself in his basement collection of dioramas. In an attempt to win favour with his neighbours, he decides to set up a home school

Clearly Pete is an unreliable narrator. His tone is strangely formal and polite, leaving the reader somewhat distanced from the action he describes. This also had the effect of sucking any irony out of situations, leaving us to deal with this bizarre parallel world as though it were straight. This is extremely discomforting, because so many of the little things are recognisable, even twenty years after publication. People are still worried about their neighbours, going out of their way to build elaborate fences and hedges to keep the bad people out. The extension Antrim builds—that people would build landmine-filled backyards, and booby-trapped moats—seems weirdly logical.

As a result, there are some hilariously memorable scenes. At one stage, Pete’s wife is seeing a therapist that encourages her to find her inner animal spirit. With no trace of irony, she announces that she is a coelacanth, a species of prehistoric fish. No one else in the room blinks. I mean, it’s completely ridiculous, but in this bizarrely twisted world of suburbia, the quest for some kind of spirituality in an otherwise barren landscape means that everyone is deadly serious about enlightenment.

And then there’s the ending. I can’t talk about it here—to spoil it would be to deny you a great pleasure as a reader. A quick glance on some other online reviews suggests that it has polarised readers: people love it or hate it, and their entire reading of the novel is coloured by their reaction. All I will say is that I love it. It is hugely jarring, and completely unexpected, but somehow acts as synecdoche for what Atrim is trying to show us as a whole: the dangers of taking things too far.

Most satirists tend to take one part of our world and mock it mercilessly. They shift the balance of one facet of our society just enough for us to examine it more closely. Antrim shifts everything. In doing so, he packs layer upon layer into a novel of less than 200 pages, forcing the reader to examine what it means to live in contemporary America. And though his contemporary is our history, it rings no less true today.

 

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Black Mischief (1932) – Evelyn WAUGH

I reviewed Evelyn Waugh’s first novel a few months ago, and I was supposed to read this one straight after. Clearly, though, I didn’t. I have some vague memory of starting it (I was probably half-asleep), and not getting it, deciding it was too difficult, and leaving it. Having reread my review of Decline and Fall, it seems I didn’t like it. At all. How, then, did this fare?

Emperor Seth of Azania (a small, independent African island nation off the east coast) has decided, after the latest coup attempt, that the best thing for his minions is to receive a good dose of Progress and the New Age. The Emperor himself, of course, was educated at Oxford, and when one of his friends, Basil Seal, from Oxford arrives in Azania, Seth sets about modernising the entire country, so that everyone may live better lives.

Black Mischief is so much better than Decline and Fall. Clearly, Waugh has had some time to practice, and is now able to do things like plot and characters. Shock! And while the first few pages are a little confusing (it wasn’t just my tired brain), and once you realise this book is supposed to be farcically funny, it really is. The things that happen are just so ridiculous and stupid, you can do nothing but shake your head and laugh. Seth’s stubborn refusal to do anything that night not be seen as ‘modern’ – and conversely, to do everything that is ‘modern’, simply because it is – is hilarious, and while many people may now see Seth’s ideas as comparably mainstream, they are quite clearly ridiculous here.

Of course, this is a Waugh novel, so conservative politics and ideals are very clearly brought into play. Nothing escapes Waugh’s satire – and he is very good at what he does. The English population of Azania, a population Waugh was clearly frustrated with at the time, are presented as doddering old fools, who care more about the latest gossip from home that anything else. William and Prudence, the two young people, are particularly subject to vicious satire – they laze around all day making out, while Prudence tries to write a novel that appeals to the common man, that takes on the ‘Panorama of Life’. This little dig at the modernist movement, along with many other parts of the English upper classes are what we come to expect from Waugh, and in this novel, he doesn’t disappoint. Similarly, the French are presented as suspicious and conniving, and several running jokes about French women and English men are part of what we have come to expect as part of Waugh’s ‘delayed detonation’ technique of humour.

There is a clear juxtaposition between the anarchy of Seth’s rule (read: ‘modernity’), and the sombre and restrained ending which Waugh presents. Once the attempts at modernity have been stopped, Azania can return to being ruled by the colonial powers – in this case, the English and the French, and a sense of normalcy and safety returns to the island. Similarly, those characters who have left the island return to a life of restrained Englishness in their proper place in society. Basil, in particular, is completely neutered as a character – though, he is already fed up with Seth before the final events. This, from a character who was a little bit of a cad to begin with. Clearly, Waugh is not a fan of the cad. Sorry, I just love that word. Cad.

Ok, so in the end, I actually really enjoyed this novel. A lot. It restored my faith in Evelyn Waugh, and I will most definitely be going out to read some more of his stuff. I love that nothing is sacred, and everything becomes this site of attack, and everything is hilarious – but witty, at the same time. On the flip side, though, I think, so far, he only has one trick – attacking progress. Hopefully he finds something else to pick on.

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Decline and Fall (1928) – Evelyn WAUGH

Continuing with my many books that have to be read for uni this semester (yes, my life is very tough…), I present Decline and Fall. I’d heard of Evelyn Waugh, but had never read him, and after being told that this was a hilarious satire about the upper classes of England in the inter-war period, I was very much looking forwward to being entertained.

Paul Pennyfeather is a young man at Oxford, having arrived after a fairly average high school career. An unfortunate case of mistaken identity, however, sees him booted out of Oxford, and he finds himself as a teacher in a second rate private school for Britain’s rich and elite. In Wales. Here, he meets a number of people who will change his life in ways he never imagined, least of all Margot Beste-Chetwynde.

To be totally honest, I’ve never really been a big fan of satire. Partially because it usually goes over my head. My lecturer believes that satire is good for the reader because it panders to their intelligence – it makes jokes at the expense of the context in which it is written, and which the reader is expected to understand. Maybe it’s because this book was written eighty years ago. Maybe I’m just not smart enough. I didn’t get it.

Probably the biggest problem I have with the novel is Paul himself. He’s so badly written, that I had a lot of trouble identifying with him at all. He just seems to go from event to event, never changing, and barely making any sort of assertion or opinion of his own. He is very much a wet blanket, who you just want to slap in the face and tell him to do something. Anything. He seems to get lost underneath all of the other crazy events and over-the-top characters that exist in this book. And there are many. Some of the farcial bits of this book are just plain silly. The Sports Day, for example, is the main set-piece of the novel, and it just gets confusing. Admittedly, there are some bits that are funny, but they get lost in the mess that is Waugh’s writing. And I can’t even describe what’s so wrong about it – it just doesn’t gel with me in any way.

I do like some of the caricatures of people, though, that are ever present in this novel. The architect, Professor Silenus, is very good as an exaggerated, frustrated artist, who designs these completely unliveable modernist houses, and everyone praises him ’cause they think they have to. So, too, are the teachers in LLanabba School – they have all completely lost the will to teach, and the boys that populate the school are little brats, anyway. Perhaps this is the redeeming feature of Decline and Fall – the caricatures of people that exist throughout the whole book. Now they just need to be written into a good novel…

In the end, I’m afraid this wasn’t for me. While some of the characters are nice, I didn’t enjoy reading it. I kept waiting for it to end, which is not a good sign. I think the thing that frustrated me most was that while Waugh’s ideas were sound enough, the execution of said ideas failed as a novel. And now I have to read another one. Hmm. Hopefully he got better as he went on.

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Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968) – Thomas KENEALLY

I had a bad experience with Thomas Keneally in high school – The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith is the only English novel I never finished in high school (!nerd!), because I just couldn’t deal with it. But, when Vintage began its new Australian classics range, this book was the only one I hadn’t read. And it has such a nice cover…

James Maitland is a new priest at the House of Studies in Sydney. One night, on his way back to the House, he meets his cousin and young bride, who have nowhere to stay. He gives them his room for the night, little realising what a fuss this will cause. And so begins a chain of events that will see Maitland’s past uncovered, and his very existence questioned as both a man and priest, and will see the fight between tradition and modernity come to a head.

To be honest, I was expecting another kind of novel where the priest was accused of sexual harassment or the such, and the whole idea of faith coming into question. Keneally, however, does not take this approach at all. Maitland is a young priest with very humanist (read: liberal, for the Catholic Church) ideas about religion and the world, and in a place where any kind of deviance from the exact letter of the law of God is frowned upon, his journey is really very interesting. Especially to one who sympathises greatly with his plight. Watching the behaviour of the other, older priests is, for me anyway, really frustrating. Here are some clearly not unintelligent men refusing to see that any kind of forward movement might actually be good for their cause. Instead, they are stuck with ideas that were outdated several hundred years ago (especially in relation to women), and feel the need to subject everyone to them.

Keneally particularly attacks the gender discrepancies so clear in the Catholic Church. Costello and Nolan (the two senior priests in the House) behave terribly towards women, especially when interviewing a young nun who has had the audacity to teach young children the possibility of other ways of life outside Catholicism. Similarly, he attacks the divorce courts of the Catholic Church, which place women under undue stress, to somehow ensure that a marriage has not been consummated to ensure a ‘legal’ divorce may take place. Not knowing that much about Catholicism before this book, this kind of behaviour shocked me a little, and makes me hope that this has been done away with in the last 40 years.

What was also really excellent was the insight into the life of a priest, and the toll this can have on your sanity. Maurice Egan, a religious lawyer for the Church, seems to be the least possible friend Maitland should make in this place, yet somehow they become quite close, and I love the irony that Egan is the priest with the biggest secret of them all – he leaves Maitland’s past deviations for dead.

Look, I was not expecting a lot from this book, even though it won the Miles Franklin Award in 1968. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised at what turns out to be a fairly angry attack on organised religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, which I always love. Three cheers for Thomas Keneally.

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