BERNARD COHEN The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies. Reviewed by Michael Richardson
Robert Menzies, John Howard, the dreams and delusions of Australian politics – all resonate in this satirical and inventive novel.
Typically, reviews begin with a snippet from the book in question or with a short description of the work and its main concerns. In form and content, Bernard Cohen’s The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies resists both such openings. Part novel and part exegetical commentary, this satirical and inventive book is many things at once: fictional and critical, factual and fantastical, anxious and passionate, funny and searching, disjointed and odd.
Taken purely on plot, the story is farcical. Recalled from the doldrums of Australian history by the new government of John Howard in 1996, former prime minister Robert F (but not G) Menzies appears in Canberra as a spectral force: ever-present but never quite in focus for press gallery or public. At first listened to by the new government, Menzies soon becomes a mere prop for photo-ops and is eventually banished from the stage entirely. Alienated, he takes to the bush, traversing an Australia he both does and does not recognise. But Menzies’ reappearance has not gone unnoticed. Years past deadline for a biography of the former prime minister, the self-involved ‘Bernard Cohen’ instead spirals into writing something else altogether: an ‘antibiography’ that leads him into fabricated identities, endless subterfuges to distract his publisher, and increasingly bizarre quests for evidence of the ghostly Menzies.
The story is told through three voices: that of Menzies, the antibiographer (and not quite author) Bernard Cohen, and ‘J’, identified through various clues as a fictionalised Janette Howard. Menzies revels in the incontrovertible certainties of his own mythology, reflecting on the ‘soothsayers’ who prophesied his greatness at childhood and imagining a future over which he rules, able to ‘see through most substances’, ‘fire laser beams from the heel of his right hand’, and ‘always be in touch with the ordinary people’.
By contrast, the antibiographer Cohen casts doubt on everything, including his own endeavours to reveal the spectral Menzies. But for all his deceptions, procrastinations and wild goose chases, the antibiogapher repeatedly and powerfully skewers the resurrection and reclamation of Menzies in the Howard years:
There is a famous photo of the two of them together, PM and deputy, and both are looking at a space between. The short-sighted journalists created something quite different from the picture, a conflict, and pumped this conflict full of journalistic air. One can, without overexerting one’s powers of observation, make out the Menziean shape like a large and benevolent plasmic entity cleaving them together in a delight of liberal conservatism and conservative liberalism. They are smiling like two schoolboys not busted for anything.
This is terrific writing: funny, cutting and wonderfully accurate. But Cohen gives the best lines to J, at last given her glory as the brains behind her husband’s success. ‘It occurs to me,’ she says at one point, ‘that one definition of human is that if you wish to live in Canberra you are not one.’ And elsewhere, ‘I am surrounded by revenant men. See how they rise! And from such depths! It is the nature of politics played well.’
All this occurs ‘above the line’ while below it are exegetical footnotes examining everything from authorial choices to Australian political discourse to the nature of historical research. These footnotes, ostensibly the work of the antibiographer’s research assistant Cordell Froat (himself an invention to extract more funds from Cohen’s publisher), have a complex relationship to the fictional text: they mirror, extend, question, undermine and unravel it by turns.
They also enable some explanation of the text itself. Crucially, an early footnote addresses the question of what an ‘antibiography’ might be:
The antibiographical work is not true, is not written, is not a work. The subject of the antibiography is fictional, was not born, is not a person. The antibiographer defames, falsifies, fabricates, addresses other biographical subjects than the one purported to be the biographical subject, ignores the biographical subject, refuses to write (biographies), destroys the biographical writing of others.
But admitting the fictive, destructive project of antibiographer does not weaken Cohen’s project – far from it. It liberates the author to deconstruct an era of remarkable political symbolism and myth-making. Thus the subject of the text is not Robert Gordon Menzies, but ‘Robert F Menzies,’ where the ‘F’ might stand for all manner of things, not least ‘fucking’.
Together, footnotes and fiction generate a disruptive resonance designed to unsettle discourses – political, biographical, historical, critical, fictional – and the effects they can have in the wider world. In part, this is a book about the mendacity of the Howard era, its nostalgia for a past that never existed and its mythologising of an ahistorical Menzies, a man who never quite was what Howard wished him to be. But it is also a book about how myths work in politics, and what fiction might do not only to write against dangerous myth but to dismantle its very foundations. It is also very much a novel about the instability of truth itself.
Finishing this review in the days after the Abbott government delivered its first budget, I cannot help but feel an added poignancy to the nostalgia given such complex critique in The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies. If Howard called forth a specific era that never quite was, the conservatism of Abbott is something altogether more nebulous, less figured, less anchored in particular histories. It is the conservatism of free-market fantasy, not Howard’s dream of a smaller Australia founded in quiet country towns and middle-class suburbs. For all Cohen’s brilliant incisions and the ongoing necessity of deconstructing political narratives and symbols, undoing the myths of Menzies’ sometime heir cannot help but feel like a task that no longer possesses the urgency it once did. Howard himself seems not so far from being consigned to bellowing formlessness in the wilds of the nation, while something far more brutal has taken up residence in Canberra.
Bernard Cohen The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies Fourth Estate 2013 PB 304pp $32.99
Michael Richardson is an academic and writer. Once, he was the only Australian speechwriter in Canadian politics. He can be found on the web at www.marichardson.net and on Twitter @richardson_m_a.