Thursday 19 September 2019

Elton takes a satirical swipe at a Britain sliding off axis of sanity

Fiction: Identity Crisis

Ben Elton

Bantam Press, hardback, 376 pages, €22.50

Broad comedy: Ben Elton targets identity politics
Broad comedy: Ben Elton targets identity politics
Identity Crisis by Ben Elton
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

There's something mildly ironic in the fact that Ben Elton's new novel takes satirical aim at the excesses of political correctness. He first made his bones as a scrupulously right-on comedian in the 1980s, when lecturing the plebs on sexism and the iniquities of Thatcherism seemed as important as actually being funny.

But Elton was genuinely funny, too - Blackadder is one of the greatest English TV comedies ever written - which excused a lot of moralising and hectoring. And people change; it would be strange for anyone to hold fast to the politics and principles of their youth as they near 60.

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Besides, it's not as though Elton has made a complete volta face and turned into some fulminating Little Englander. The absurd horrors of identity politics are his main satirical target here, but he gives a good kicking to just about everyone, from Jacob Rees-Mogg type rabble-rousers to hair-trigger professionally-offended Twitter warriors, and everyone in between.

If there's a message to this book, it's something along the lines of: everyone is stupid, ridiculous and chronically infantilised - and society is falling apart because of it.

The action takes place in the near-future, as England prepares to vote on independence from the UK. Brexit has sort-of-but-not-fully happened - Britain is currently "half in and half out" of the EU.

A shadowy group called England Out is pushing for Leave, as are three bluff Old Etonian types: Bunter Jolly, Guppy Toad and Plantaganet Greased-Hogg. The pro-Union government stumbles from one crisis to the next, their main problem being that they don't know what Britain stands for anymore, or what they stand for: constantly second-guessing voters and themselves, they slavishly following any lame-brained marketing wheeze.

Meanwhile, detective Mick Matlock is investigating the murder of a woman in London called Sammy Hill, who it transpires was born a man. Mick is a decent, smart fella, a bit old-school, and runs into a firestorm of controversy for daring to suggest that women be careful and avoid walking home alone: this apparently is "victim-blaming".

Police management are more concerned with "managing the story" than catching the killer. The pathologist prissily insists that Mick - casual first names only in the workplace - gives Sammy "zir" due pronouns.

More killings follow: a Germaine Greer-esque feminist, a #MeToo-inspired historian, Christian B&B owners who refused accommodation to a gay couple. And more controversies ensue: reality TV show Love Island runs into trouble over "heteronormativity", veteran actor Rodney Taylor is accused of inappropriate behaviour with young women.

The public reacts, and reacts to the reaction; tempers fray, people lose all perspective and Britain slowly slides off the axis of sanity and reason. Everyone's a victim, everyone is oppressed, everyone has a more valid reason to feel aggrieved than the other crowd.

In the background, much of this tribal pugnaciousness is being stoked up by Communication Sandwich, an annoyingly hip and decidedly dodgy company run by posh bad-boy Julian and mathematically engineered by gifted Malika, a second-generation Pakistani.

It's all a big mess, a helter-skelter whirl of politics, skulduggery, power and really profound stupidity.

Identity Crisis is frequently funny, though the comedy is often very broad. In one way, that's understandable, and indeed somewhat beyond Elton's control: elements of identity politics have become so ludicrous that they are now, as the saying goes, beyond parody.

For instance, one character begins a campaign to bring charges of sexual assault against Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist of Old London who died in 1703. At first this seems like classic satire, taking something to its logical (or illogical) conclusion; but in an era when ideologues are determinedly rewriting large chunks of history, and insisting on controlling not only how people speak but even how they think, it feels - rather disturbingly - closer to a warning than cheery exaggeration to take the mickey.

A slightly larger problem is the fact that, plot-wise, the book peters out towards the end. It's wrapped up very quickly, as though Elton had been told he had X-amount of words left in which to end the tale.

Again, though, this is in some ways beyond the author's control: you need to establish this OTT, cartoonish universe for satirical reasons, but it's then tricky to keep it all under control narratively. Some of the story doesn't make much sense, but maybe that's the whole point - in the real world, identity-politics nonsense doesn't always either.


Darragh McManus' novels include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'

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