A satirical epic

A satirical epic

Review: Praiseworthy, Alexis Wright, Giramondo

Alexis Wright’s extraordinary, epic new novel is an Indigenous Infinite Jest, an antipodean Ulysses, the language bursting-full of irony and playfulness, pointing to the experiences of and expectations on Indigenous people as they steer between tradition and modernity. 

‘Praiseworthy’ is the somewhat ironic name of this northern community, where a mysterious haze has descended, and local man Cause Man Steel, a Don Quixote-type character, also known mockingly as Planet and Widespread for his ambition, is trying to head off coming climate catastrophe and fossil fuel shortages by setting up a global transport business based on feral donkeys, which are in plentiful supply in the Top End, and which he collects one-by-one in his battered car.

He runs into some logistical problems – the townspeople complain about the stink, and the spirits complain about the disruption to their eternal sleep, as Planet herds the donkeys at the local cemetery. Meanwhile, the donkeys don’t quite live up to the expectations set by the ancestor spirits who have appeared to Planet in a dream. He is looking for a perfect silver donkey, but only ends up with grey ones – here Wright is hinting, I assume, at how mainstream Australia focusses on the exceptional, exemplary Indigenous figure. 

Characters epitomise various attitudes to Indigenous Australia. Her satire is not subtle, but it is delicious. Planet has two sons, named Aboriginal Sovereignty and Tommyhawk. The latter watches secretly as his older brother wades out to sea and disappears. The townspeople lament the loss of their Aboriginal Sovereignty and criticise Planet for spending time on wild schemes instead of searching for Aboriginal Sovereignty. Tommyhawk, on the other hand, has spent too much time on the internet and believes the community is full of sexual predators, and longs for the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra to rescue him. 

In all this, Wright is sending up Aboriginal attitudes to government, and government attitudes to Indigenous people, as well as the kind of media chatter that pictures so-called remote communities simply as problems to be solved one way or another. Throughout, the mashed-up and turbo-charged language parodies political speak, political correctness, right-wing propaganda and the simplistic appropriation of Indigenous culture. Wright is relentlessly innovative, with neologisms like ‘collapsology’ and her pile-up sentences reflecting the festering of Planet’s plans and the townspeople’s growing annoyance. There is also a loving send-up of small-town hubris and dysfunction. Through humour, Wright highlights how often theory and practice misalign.

Praiseworthy’s mayor is Ice Pick, an albino Indigenous man who believes the way forward is assimilation. As well as battling Planet’s project, in a parody of mainstream media Ice Pick broadcasts to the community that they shouldn’t kill their children but should love them like white people do. He tells them they need to be all one race: ‘Australian’, while a consultant is brought in to advise them to give up impractical ideas about aboriginal sovereignty and workshop positive thinking instead. 

It feels like Wright has left no ironic stone unturned, no cultural or personal foible unexploited, so expansive is her vision. This does mean that there are over 700 pages to wade through, but there is something appropriate about this heft. At every turn of the page there is something to laugh at, and, importantly, some opportunity to reflect on the way that language is used in relation to Indigenous Australians.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com and is the illustrator of Thoughts That Feel So Big. 


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