Underground by Andrew McGahan

It’s no secret that a lot of people are dissatisfied with the way the Western world is progressing. In the aftermath of 9/11, the neo-conservative agenda has been in the ascendancy, relying on its spurious claim to be the only defence against terror and chaos. For those on the political Left, this comes with some disturbing baggage — assaults on civil rights, mistreatment of prisoners-of-war and refugees, deception of the public, and shameless favouritism shown to Big Business.

In times like these, writers and artists have an important role to play, through enlightening the public, promoting activism, and proposing alternatives. Individual artworks seldom overthrow regimes, but modern history provides examples of the changing of collective consciousness by the creative works of oppositional artists: the protest music of the 1960s, Soviet dissidents like Solzhenitsyn, black consciousness writers.

What is most unfortunate about our present situation is the poor standard of political art. While there are standouts, much present-day “liberal” art is both failing as art and as persuasive tool. Unfortunately, there is a section of the artistic community that is isolated from the general populace, creating self-congratulatory and superficial works that fail to engage or incite.

Australian enfant terrible Andrew McGahan’s Underground is sadly no exception. As a winner of two leading Australian literary prizes (the Australian/Vogel and the Miles Franklin), McGahan is a respected voice in contemporary fiction. So it’s a shame that his take on Australia’s future is so pedestrian.

Taking place in a not-too-distant future, Underground presents an Australia in the grip of terrorism. National capital Canberra has been destroyed by a terrorist nuclear weapon. The right wing government, a direct heir of today’s Howard administration, holds the nation under its police-state thumb. Islam has been banned, Muslims locked up into ghettos and checkpoints placed everywhere to control the movements of citizens. The novel’s anti-hero, Leo James, is a washed-up property developer and also the twin-brother of the totalitarian Prime Minister. When he manages to get himself abducted by terrorists, the conspiracy at the heart of the new Australia is revealed.

Underground is clearly intended as a darkly humorous take on Australia’s future (as the publisher’s blurb informs us) but ultimately it’s pulpy and faintly ridiculous.

Albeit in a different medium, Alfonso Cuarón’s recent film adaptation of P.D. James’ The Children of Men is a useful comparator. Both works take a similar approach: amplifying the worst political excesses of today (refugee detention camps, the war on terror); feeding on a deep suspicion of the authorities and freedom-fighters alike; and depicting a flawed protagonist trying to find his way through a hostile landscape. Yet while Cuarón’s future is believable and compelling, McGahan’s comes across as silly and contrived. Underground is enjoyable enough and the plot moves at a sufficiently brisk pace. So why does it fail?

The utilitarian characterisation is certainly one reason. Whereas the classic political novel 1984, to which the publisher rather hopefully compares Underground, created genuine pathos and sympathy around his protagonist, McGahan’s Leo is an entirely artificial construct.

A big, macho, selfish buffoon of a man, Leo never once gives the reader a reason to identify with him. If he is appalled at the horrors he sees around him, it’s likely to be only because they interfere with his drinking plans. It often appears that McGahan wants to paint Leo in the image of the great Australian larrikins and rugged individualists of old, but it’s a challenging line for a writer to walk. Leo mostly falls over onto the side of being a mere prick.

The rest of the cast fare no better. Supporting characters appear from time to time, mainly to further the plot, never engaging the reader’s imagination seriously. The middle-class extremist Aisha could have been a fascinating case study, but is no more than an excuse for Leo’s rhapsodies to young flesh and facile reflections on white guilt.

Even the towering figure of the Prime Minister is a non-entity. Bernard James is an uncharismatic but ruthless figure, hell-bent on retaining power and ruining the lives of everyone around him. While ostensibly a successor to the current Prime Minister John Howard, James is quite clearly Howard’s stand-in. Sadly, McGahan gives no real rationale for James’ (or Howard’s) megalomania beyond some perfunctory reflections in his childhood. This is not an uncommon issue for the Australian Left when depicting Howard. It is also possibly the root of their problem — if they cannot adequately understand and explain Howard, then they cannot hope to defeat him.

The plot itself has had only a moment’s thought given to plausibility. The vast conspiracy that Leo uncovers over the course of the book calls for a suspension of disbelief previously required only in Michael Bay films. There are elements of present day Australia that are horrifying enough — the deionization of Arabic-Australians, conditions in refugee camps, surveillance of innocent people, the idiotic enforcement of “Australian values” — without the need for contrived “everything-is-connected” paranoia. The most convincing political critiques rarely stray far from the real world, because if you can damn a world order with less rather than more, you have damned them thoroughly.

Of course, realism and plausibility are not as essential when a novel has some kind of allegorical significance. Which Underground does not. The plot is grounded quite clearly in the Australia of today and the parallels are literal and obvious. There are no great metaphors, no allusions to anything higher or more significant than the status quo.

A book can be neither plausible nor metaphorical and simply seek to encourage debate — to demonstrate enough of the ills of today to stir people to action. Why is that not sufficient? Quite simply, because truth matters. Because in trying to persuade, to incite, to radicalise, artists need to paint an accurate picture. Because those in power will always seek to discredit your work, drawing on the facts that suit their case. And those not already convinced of your viewpoint, the apathetic middle, will be put off by any sign of bias or propaganda and you will have missed an opportunity.

Fiction by its nature isn’t factual in all its details, but through correlation with reality, or plausibility, or allegorical significance it can still convey key truths. These are important times and the people disenfranchised by our governments’ decisions need those with public voices to do them justice in depicting the state of affairs and where we are headed. They deserve better than this.