“This is not a documentary”, Jane Clifton

The Trough
Jon Gadsby
Random House, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 408 X

Satirising politics is almost a redundant art these days, since for the past several years it has been diligently self-satirising. The most farcical, the most cynical, the most brain-scramblingly dumb things one can think of have either already happened, or cannot be ruled out of tomorrow’s headlines. Humorist Jon Gadsby, however, has been a professional satirist of politics for the best part of three decades, primarily for television, and it’s probable that if he had not written this book by now, his spleen would have imploded. Reading The Trough, one suspects it had already become dangerously engorged by publication date.

The Trough is clearly the product of long pent-up, and wonderfully original, responses to years of political turmoil, and as such, it’s disconcertingly concentrated. Funny lines, farce, florid description and general silliness are shoehorned into every page. Pity the book editor. What gems would you cut? But it does tend to make the book – for what you’d expect to be a light, frothy read – indigestible in all but short sittings.

Having tried to read the recently published Blackadder, this writer had a not altogether unpleasant flashback. Blackadder was written to be consumed one densely-packed episode at a time, and that’s exactly how The Trough is best read – as if it were a TV script. It would make a glorious comedy/drama series, because its best gags are verbal and visual. The conceits of the plot are so ingenious, they deserve to be savoured. All that would be lost in the translation would be the descriptive passages, which, in places, are tedious. One too many characters “pulled himself up to his full 5 foot 5”; one too many telephones “shrilled to life”. Dozy MPs in Parliament “succumbed to the embrace of Morpheus”. Too too too too much.

In contrast, the dialogue romps along merrily. As befits a television veteran, Gadsby has a great ear for conversation. The only thing that interrupts the flow here is the determined outlandishness of all the characters’ names. It’s only a niggle, but the onomatopoeia and punnability get irritating after a while. Opposition Finance spokesman Slobodan Mosley; Boudicca Tweed, the leviathan lesbian (or is she?) Opposition leader; Environment Minister Dylan McCall, known as “McCall of Nature”; a Police Minister named Boote, so the Government can quip about “putting the Boote in” – all are fun, but they tend to over-egg the plot, which is quite gorgeously daft enough already.

Not that it’s pure fantasy. Sillier things have happened than are in this book, which makes it by way of a textbook in places. Gadsby has a wicked way with real administrative farce. A frigate, for example, is named the HMNZS Waikaremoana – a name, it is discovered too late, which will not fit along the side of the boat. So it is hyphenated, with the “-moana” bit on the other side of the boat. Alas, the dorks at head office list this as two frigates, the Waikare, and the Moana, and assign two crews which man the ship in tandem. In a sticky situation, the frigate Waikare radios for help, and is told that the Moana is in the area. On the plus side, the Australians accept the two frigates as proof that New Zealand has filled its agreed defence quota.

The elevating of a fridge to the status of taonga is also hilariously chronicled, as is another key plot device, the last remaining kakapo (or is it?), named Ken, which allows Gadsby to send up the sometimes arbitrary nature of both conservation, and privatisation. Will Ken serve his country best by breeding, or by being auctioned off for the Sultan of Brunei’s dinner table?

It’s purely a matter of taste, of course, but some readers might find the bit about the SIS infiltration of a lesbian/Wicca orgy involving Boudicca Tweed, and a character known as V Peter “Organ” Dansey, somewhat goreblimey. And there’s a whole dominatrix motif – “you naughty, naughty prime minister!” – which sits tiresomely in a plot of otherwise unhackneyed ideas.

The great accomplishment of this book is to produce something fresh from what is a minutely picked-over and already inherently ridiculous political scene. It really rediscovers the absurdities of Rogernomics, MMP, Maori grievance-mongering and liberal sexual politics. Sometimes things are merely incidentally skewered. A Greenpeace boat is called The Sapphic Albatross; the balance of power in Parliament is held by the one-man Free Nelson Mandela Party (“When is someone going to tell him?”); a character graduates from university with honours in Traditional Maori Law: “As there was not, and never had been, any Maori law that any two iwi could agree upon for more than ten seconds at a time, the marking and grading of Howard’s final year papers was something of a foregone conclusion … Had it been possible to award a student 110 per cent, the marking panel … would have fallen over themselves to do it.”

In the annals of satire, it’s an old compliment that a lot of politicians and bureaucrats remain under the impression that the comedy classic Yes, Minister was a documentary. This book is a reasonable step in that hallowed direction. At the very least, those inside Wellington’s political beltway should be forced to read it as part of their performance contracts – once, of course, it has been carefully explained to them that this is a comedy, and not a source of new ideas for them to try out.

Jane Clifton is a political columnist for the Listener.

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