Reviewed: Martin McKenzie-Murray, The Speechwriter, Scribe
Early in The Speechwriter, I encounter a scenario where Donald Trump instructs Don Jr to ‘hijack Air Force Two and suicidally steer the plane into Disneyland … Congress is still split on impeachment.’ As I read it for the first time shortly after Joe Biden’s inauguration—by that point just a month after the storming of the US Capitol by right-wing men dressed in fur and horned helmets, with debate over impeachment raging—I realise that the fictional Don Jr situation doesn’t feel shocking. In a time defined by utter shamelessness, satire has become even more difficult: it’s impossible to reveal the powerful as hypocritical when they proudly promote themselves as grotesque. Worse, their audiences either don’t seem to care or actively love it.
As the story unfolds, author Martin McKenzie-Murray smartly avoids the problem of comparison to real political events by constructing a world that is, for the most part, his own. A former political speechwriter, he uses insider knowledge of the systems in which politicians, staffers and public servants clash with one another, as well as with the media and the general public. This makes the small-minded and banal focus of his characters much more horrifying—it’s easy to imagine that some of the dialogue in the book is borderline verbatim.
Despite a few brief mentions of the actions of Trump and other former US presidents such as Barack Obama and Lyndon B. Johnson, The Speechwriter generally keeps a tight focus on Australia. It deals with a particular national rhetoric that is constantly forced upon us: one obsessed with sport, confused about power, and afraid of sharks. It’s an ‘Australia’ consisting of ‘Australians’ who have convinced themselves that all the big problems have already been solved. This is convenient, because then every small-time grievance and culture war can be completely indulged.
These obsessions and neuroses inform The Speechwriter at every turn, from the core beliefs of the characters to the ludicrous issues they variously manage or ignore. An eternally frustrated—and frustrating—character, Toby Beaverbrook, takes the reins in this novel. His journey is presented in the form of his memoirs written from a prison cell in the fictional Sunshine Correctional Centre, where the story begins before shifting back in time to explain how he came to be there. Inspired as a child by the speeches of Winston Churchill, Toby later makes the ‘unoriginal’ observation that The West Wing ‘encouraged a generation of self-regarding clowns to join politics in order to imitate them’—himself included. As acknowledged, this is a common trope, but it’s also true to McKenzie-Murray’s construction of Australia, where public servants are inspired by and interested in anything other than the country they ostensibly serve.
Toby’s grandiose visions of his future, as a giant astride the political landscape, crash regularly into mundane obstacles, including impulsive teens, uninterested bosses and jaded bureaucrats. Despite this he continues to fail upwards, from humiliated school captain candidate to humble electorate officer, then speechwriter for the Western Australian premier, federal public servant and, ultimately, prime ministerial puppeteer. And while his multiple downfalls don’t always comedically propel him to the next role, The Speechwriter’s point is clear: at a certain point in this system, failure can become impossible. Toby is just another beneficiary, especially once he recognises this impossibility.
Toby maintains a smug view of himself and his talents, believing that he is unique in his desire to fight for the public good. This quality only reveals itself at a few small moments, such as when he helps a constituent with a feral cat problem against the wishes of his boss, who would prefer him to photoshop some fridge magnets. A typical Toby-ism: ‘Here was Demos, again. Passionate, sacrificial, imperfect. God, how I loved The People. In Canberra, I would refine, reflect and amplify them.’ Another: ‘But who the fuck am I? And which of fate’s farts blew me to Sunshine? Or are those awful winds self-made?’
As his admitted West Wing fascination betrays, he’s far more in love with the idea of feeling as if he’s bringing about change than with actually doing it—his awareness of this impulse doesn’t absolve him of it. And McKenzie-Murray knows this, puncturing Toby’s verbose prose with footnoted interjections from his cellmate, Garry, who points out when he’s being a dickhead. This distances the reader from Toby, who by the story’s end becomes an accelerant in the collapse of political structures rather than a character with whom we share an emotional journey. While Toby encounters his fair share of personal and professional disappointments, he’s difficult to root for, which usefully places the focus squarely on systems rather than on one character’s idiosyncratic experience.
The book inevitably brings to mind other classic works of satire: Armando Iannucci’s Veep or The Thick of It, Clarke and Dawe sketches, Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, and Working Dog productions from Frontline to The Hollowmen and Utopia. Like The Speechwriter, these deal directly with politicians and the bureaucracy—this isn’t satire by metaphor. Their characters are actors in high-level worlds, with a generally shared set of frustrations, backgrounds and limitations. Their rhythms are fast, with rapid-fire dialogue and circular arguments—they are resigned hangers-on and aggressive power brokers who derail even the smallest attempt to do good. And while the environments in which they operate can be surreal, their petty obsessions are usually not.
In line with these predecessors, The Speechwriter proceeds at a swift pace. It often steers into base humour: a Western Australian Opposition leader is humiliated after an incident in which he ‘fucked—sorry, blew—a bull’; a federal public servant spends her days crafting a pornographic screenplay about ‘Dong Bradman’; a copy of Churchill’s collected speeches is accidentally defaced by a bout of diarrhoea. Later in Toby’s career, a federal minister gives a speech at an art gallery against the backdrop of an orgy. These events are coloured by a steady stream of innuendo and various made-up idioms in Garry’s interjections: ‘as pretentious as three hats on a pony’, for example, or ‘stranger than a truck-driving sub-atomic particle’.
In many ways this overtness is the treatment Australia deserves—its politics is unsubtle, and it would be generous to pretend otherwise. But as I read, McKenzie-Murray’s observations about political life are most perceptive when they venture into the truly absurd. I was delighted by a fictional former Labor leader’s comment that ‘if more kids grew up with Aussie meat trays for parents, I seriously doubt we’d be in deficit today’—it is one of the more gloriously bizarre statements, which even now circles back into my head every few days. Although it is less politically sharp, I had a similar response to another fictional former MP’s claim that ‘tonight, the Prime Minister had the temerity to reference the ocean without once mentioning the body that determines its tides. Completely out of touch. Is she, or is she not, a voluptuous sorceress?’ These leaps into the fantastic sometimes extend into full scenes, such as the culmination of events at the art gallery mentioned above:
The Minister had now seized the gallery’s most expensive artwork from its display stand: DJ Blinky, an embalmed koala with oversized headphones priced at a quarter-million. The crowd, anticipating spiritual catharsis, surrounded the Minister. Some wept. In the middle of the circle, the Minister cradled Blinky—a Cosmic proxy, he declared, for our Creativity.
McKenzie-Murray fires off an enormous number of ideas in the course of The Speechwriter, and passages like this show the book at its most interesting—compressing national iconography, capitalism co-opting the arts, politicians taking credit for what younger generations have created, and the absorption of mindfulness into political rhetoric.
Moving rapidly from scenes like this to new ideas, settings and characters sometimes means the richest targets are dispatched too quickly, including those where McKenzie-Murray is at his most pointed. At one point in the book, Toby admits that at his job he would read only political hagiographies, which he ‘piled ostentatiously on [his] desk and would occasionally consult if [he] wanted to elevate a speech on the opening of a new swimming lane at a local rec centre’. This quirk, particularly in an Australian context where politicians have become almost anti-rhetoric, feels ripe. In these moments, it’s clear that McKenzie-Murray is painfully aware of our many banal national tendencies, and I wonder how many awful conversations he’s sat through, witnessing interesting or worthwhile statements being filed down to nothing. This awareness pays off briefly in a grandiose speech Toby writes for the opening of a toilet block, channelling his creative energy into the most mundane act imaginable:
When Churchill required solitude so that he could better plot against Hitler, he found refuge in the bathroom … Today, we disrespect toilets. We smother their use in euphemism. Well, this government respects humanity enough to not shy away from humanity’s basic functions.
There are a few beats like this one, which I wish had been given greater focus. I was less interested in Toby’s attempts to spice up his colleague’s pornographic screenplay, for example, than in one of the most fun ideas The Speechwriter introduces—a federal plan to install tobacconists and bakeries at every cricket academy in the country in order to re-create the conditions that produced Shane Warne. This kind of twisted logic feels exciting, offering a glimpse into an alternate world that directly unpacks Australia’s relationship with the narrative it has constructed for itself.
There are moments where competing tendencies arise in The Speechwriter: one, an Iannucci-esque, fast-paced satire of brutally cynical staffers; the other, a Toltz-like alternative reality filled with absurdity and rapid escalation. Sometimes the styles mesh well, though at other times they clash. References to real figures (such as Steve Jobs or David Lynch) sit alongside names like ‘Ricky Hammer’ and ‘Calamity Pete’, conjuring the feel of a Mad as Hell sketch. But when this ridiculousness takes over the narrative completely, it works. It seems strange to say that a department manager who hasn’t heard of the US presidential inauguration is more on the nose than a politician who thinks more people should have meat trays for parents, but in a world of surreal politicking this is as easily imagined as Barnaby Joyce threatening Johnny Depp’s dogs, or ex-senator John Madigan arguing that ‘submarines are the spaceships of the ocean’.
In many ways this speculative approach to satire feels well suited to the present moment, where capitalism, the internet and culture are colliding and accelerating: this is a mode that literature can adopt more smoothly than other forms such as film or television, as it has the ability to make sharp shifts into the unreal feel completely natural and visceral. For me, The Speechwriter is at its best when it takes this approach, tapping into the enforced sense of ‘Australian’ nationhood—with its particular idiosyncrasies and failures—and heightening it.
The plot about bull fellatio generates multiple conversations that wouldn’t feel out of place in Veep, and showcases the experience of attempting to leak news without being seen as the source, but in the context of this story’s world it doesn’t seem outrageous enough. Conversely, there’s the deadpan absurdity of a later political scandal: ‘The Prime Minister is under renewed pressure today, after it was discovered he criticised water polo in a bizarre 1975 column for his university’s newspaper.’ These straight-faced yet senseless statements tap into something deep in the national psyche, or at least the one that is constantly packaged and sold by those in positions of power.
These references (like the prime minister proclaiming that ‘the aged pension is academic if you’ve been eaten by a shark before retirement’) also show McKenzie-Murray at his most insightful. His choices reflect an interest in dealing with the Australia that its leaders and bureaucrats—with whom he has worked—occupy, an Australia shaped by their own assumptions and false narratives. This Australia is always under the surface in The Speechwriter, and it feels (for lack of a better word) bad. But that’s the point, and it would be powerful to see McKenzie-Murray work with this version as the unwavering target. That’s because the most evocative moments in The Speechwriter arise from these tendencies, which show rapid pivots in logic that pit pure imagination against the mundane, middling Australia of a certain ideological stripe. Australia’s political culture deserves it. •
Scott Limbrick is a writer based in Melbourne. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Overland, Kill Your Darlings’ New Australian Fiction, Westerly, Hobart, the Suburban Review, VICE and others.