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Fiction reviews

 

Ross Fitzgerald - Busy in the Fog

3 October 1990

Busy in the Fog
by Ross Fitzgerald
Macmillan


Published in The Age



Whilst Australian non-fiction is frequently astute and original, our fiction - with noble exceptions - tends to the limp and the banal. The pattern is particularly striking when the one author manifests both extremes.

Ross Fitzgerald - senior lecturer in history and politics at Brisbane's Griffith University - is rightly esteemed as one of the nation's leading political scientists. I hope he doesn't give up his day job: this novel would be a worthy replacement, in certain foreign prisons, for the slow drip.

It is the third in the series of Grafton Everest stories. Everest - a fat, lazy and confused Queensland academic - watches TV news bulletins (transcripts are reproduced ad nauseam), has sexual fantasies, reads university rulebooks (long extracts provided), devours newspaper articles (ditto), peruses faxes from a reactionary windbag in Melbourne (these often run to several pages), and ruminates on various anal, oral and genital problems. Few of these elements connect with each other, or anything else. Grafton sometimes concludes an incident with a brief banality, before the story "moves on".

But it never moves on: in truth, there isn't a story. Even if some of its elements were original or funny or important - and none are - this would still be one of the laziest novels I have read: it's really a collection of undeveloped ideas, artificially strung together.

The first two chapters (Grafton in bed; Grafton at a university council meeting) are typical. They consist of one- or two-liners at the expense of feminists, university administrators, the government, the new right, fundamentalists and the media. The degenerate Bjelke-Peterson regime gets numerous serves. (Surely by now this is rather like shooting fish in a barrel?) The jokes are laboured and obvious, the timing poor, the dialogue more cluttered than a mouth full of marbles, and the story (for want of a better word) has the satirical bite of a gingivitic Peke.

There is a nod towards a plot about every 20 pages. The interminable news bulletins trace the rise of a right-wing Christian political party, headed by an academic friend of Grafton's. Left-wing fanatics mistakenly believe Grafton is in league with his friend, and infiltrate his house with a gay baby-sitter. They all move to Toowoomba. Brisbane is hit by an earthquake. But the bulk of the text is taken up with irrelevancies and non sequiturs.

So, that's the bad news. Here is the extremely bad news:

Grafton is enormously fat, sexually frustrated, lazy, self-justicatory, and bewildered by the modern world. He knows only academia, and is frequently given to pompous monologues. In other words he strongly resembles John Kennedy Toole's superb creation, Ignatius J Reilly, in A Confederacy of Dunces. Notwithstanding this remarkable coincidence, there are major differences between the two books. Firstly, Toole can write. Secondly, like those in all bad literature, Fitzgerald's characters entirely lack volition and motivation. For example Grafton attends a meditation session with Annie, his instructor. One minute she is uttering New Age truisms, the next she is - for no apparent reason - jumping on top of him. They make love. Then it's back to the cosmic platitudes. It's all over in seconds. We don't know why she does all this. We don't know what Grafton makes of it either: his reactions are unrecorded. This passage, like most of the book, has all the coherence of a string of telegrams sent from a madhouse.

Fitzgerald uses a fair bit of information from other sources. Occasionally this is interesting. For example the revelation that Japan has fewer lawyers, in toto, than Australia, may help explain the differences in the two economies. However this information is not integrated. (Whether Fitzgerald is incapable of seeing the relation of the part to the whole, or whether there is nothing to integrate the part into, is a chicken-or-egg question.) The information about lawyers is quickly succeeded by Grafton's former teacher's neighbour's dog, the Great Lisbon Earthquake, and a string of other things. I've read Dada poems with more unity of theme.

Fitzgerald also pinches Woody Allen's "I've forgotten my mantra" joke (originally spoken on the phone by a drunken Californian to his guru, as I recall), and Rupert Murdoch's "Headless Corpse in Topless Bar" joke - but gets them both wrong.

Most of the disparate rumination, reading, lying down, eating and talking in this novel is perpetrated by academics, in the milieu of the fictitious "Bowen University". Stories by and about academics are almost invariably inward-looking and lifeless. (David Lodge's novels spring to mind.) This one is no exception.

Before closing I should point out that a better man than me says that "Grafton Everest is a wonderful creation whom I would place without question in the ranks of Philip Roth's Portnoy and Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim." These words were written by Barry Humphries - our finest satirist, and a sorely-missed critic. Fitzgerald's publishers have thrashed the quote mercilessly for years: still, he did say it.

For me, however, this fragmented, humorless and indifferently edited book is closer to Grafton than Everest, if a geographical metaphor is called for - though personally I'd be tempted to put it behind the comfort station slap bang in the middle of Niddrie. To have written the worst Australian novel in recent years would be a daunting task: the competition is ferocious. However Busy in the Fog certainly deserves a place in the bottom five.


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