Australian author Robert Gott is best known for two series of historical crime novels. The first of these features Richard Power, a bumbling Shakespearean actor during World War 2. His latest book Naked Ambition, is contemporary but features at its centre a similar deluded, self-aggrandizing character who seems determined to hoist himself by his own petard.
Gregory Buchanan has a flourishing political career. He is Minister for Transport in the government of the State of Victoria and is seen by the Premier as a potential leadership threat. When Naked Ambition opens he is bringing home portrait he had secretly commissioned of himself to unveil to his family. The portrait is a full length nude, that not only seems to feature his genitals but make him look smug and entitled. Despite his family’s horror and their belief that it will kill his political career, Buchanan is determined to allow the artist to enter the portrait in Australia’s most prestigious portraiture prize.
The humour here comes mainly from dialogue as different characters come into the Buchanan family home. This includes Gregory’s wife Phoebe, his straight talking mother Margaret, his Christian fundamentalist mother-in-law Joyce and his lesbian sister Sally. Later it will also include the State Premier and her chief of staff. Most of the novel is the repartee between all of these characters and others as the situation gets more out of control. All of which allows Gott to weave in satire in the form of observation and barbed comments none better ire in the form of observation and barbed comments none better than this one:
‘I think it’s fair to say that Australians are fairly indifferent to their prime ministers’ looks – how else can you explain the parade of gargoyles that have held office – but they are unlikely to be indifferent to a display of prime ministerial pudenda. The scrotum is not a vote winner.’
All that is to say, the book feels rather stagey. Practically all of the action, such as is it, is in the form of dialogue that takes place in the Buchanan family home, with some of the action almost being delivered as stage directions. Tension and comedy are mainly created by more and more people coming into that space and interacting with the other characters already there. And while there is some interiority for the characters, the whole scenario feels like it would have worked more effectively as a play.
Comedy of this type in literature is hard. The characters have to be broad and caricatured enough to make fun of but also rounded enough to come across as real people. It is easier to do this in theatre where the characters are real people to start off with. Gott does not quite manage to strike this balance, and part of that comes down to having to sell the premise. Buchanan, for all of his arguments in favour of the portrait comes across as way too naïve to have ever made it as far as he has, particularly with a wife who purportedly works in PR. Similar observations can be made about some of the other characters.
While it can sometimes feel a little mannered and stagey, there is still plenty of fun to be had in Naked Ambition which has a great time skewering Australia’s political class, religion and our views of sexuality.