A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence and Gibson, 2016), 229 pp., $29
I’m old enough to recall a sketch in a university student revue from the early 1980s. It was about a new recruit to the SIS being outfitted with the required kit.
‘Briefcase,’ says the officer dishing out the kit.
‘Check,’ says the recruit.
‘Cold meat pies.’
‘Copy of Penthouse.’
Gales of laughter from the student audience, of course, as they delighted in the then recent (December 1981) embarrassment of an SIS officer’s missing briefcase being found in Wellington’s Aro Valley by a little boy, who handed it over to his journalist mum. It contained these particular items. They convinced students (and many other New Zealanders) that the average SIS officer must be (a.) a pathetic person with no taste, and (b.) a wanker in the most literal sense of the term. Doubtless this is untrue, but the image has been hard to shift. After all, in New Zealand most matters involving espionage or counter-espionage are on such a small scale that it’s hard to imagine our own spies ever indulging in spectacular James Bond heroics. We are more likely to be concerned about how much the SIS impinges on civil liberties.
As it happens, the Hutt Valley satirist Brannavan Gnanalingam’s fourth novel A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse doesn’t feature these eponymous items at all, apart from one very fleeting reference on page 132. But most adult New Zealanders will get the allusion and twig at once to what sort of novel it’s going to be.
It’s going to be an irreverent nose-thumber somehow involving the spy service.
Rachel McManus has just moved from the Ministry of Domestic Goings-On (i.e. Internal Affairs) to NZARM, the secretive New Zealand Alarm and Response Ministry (i.e. the SIS). Drabness is signalled smartly:
Her first day involved training in a windowless, wood-panelled room. The décor appeared to be ‘recycled ’70s’. It was probably actual furniture from the ’70s or leftover from a sauna. The fluorescent light flickered every ten seconds or so, which probably explained why the first question she was asked when she arrived was whether she was an epileptic. (p. 9)
There are few women in her department, so Rachel McManus is surrounded by unreconstructed blokes who make casual sexist or racist comments and crass jokes; or who are inappropriately avuncular; or who piss up large on stag nights and indulge in inappropriate behaviour. So disrespectful are Rachel’s colleagues that they promptly forget her first name and just call her McManus, as the novelist himself proceeds to do.
The low-level nature of threats to New Zealand’s security is revealed in an early episode. Intrepid members of NZARM panic about the outrage that might be perpetrated by somebody they designate an anarchist. The ‘outrage’ proves to be such a trivial piece of exuberant protest that it is laughable.
Now that the Cold War is over, NZARM’s current general fear concerns possible radical Islamic terrorists. So, using a system that allows her to spy on people’s home computers, McManus is tasked with tracing all the movements of an Iraqi immigrant, Abd Suleiman. Is he an Islamic fanatic who is radicalising a teenage boy he often sees? Trouble is, and to the evident annoyance of her bosses, everything McManus finds out seems to indicate that Suleiman is a completely harmless chap whose main preoccupation is football. As a reviewer, my ‘not-being-a-swine’ rule kicks in at this juncture. It’s not my task to spoil the plot twists of a newly published novel, so I won’t say where all this leads. But obviously it has to do with the way exaggerated fears of terrorism can cause major cock-ups.
McManus’s spying on Suleiman is really a thread upon which Brannavan Gnanalingam can hang his fictitious and comical exposé of the SIS. There is the mania about office security, even when it is not strictly necessary. There are the culturally out-of-touch higher-ups in the spy service, such as the old buffer who still thinks in terms of the assassination of William McKinley, the Battle of Stepney and the Haymarket Affair. There is the matter of being able to spy on the private lives of individuals when there is no clear reason to do so. There is the use made of testimony from very flawed informants, such as the Iraqi’s racist neighbour who is unsubtly called Lionel Terry. There are the favoured journos who are privileged to get deliberate ‘leaks’ from the security service because they can be guaranteed to spin things the way the security service wants them spun. There’s the very Wellington-centric nature of this whole story. Aren’t government departments wedded to the capital city? Brannavan Gnanalingam lays the local colour on thickly. Chapter 14, in which McManus ineptly stalks the suspected immigrant, name-checks so many streets that it becomes a virtual guided tour of central Wellington and the Hutt.
There are also, it must be admitted, topical and therefore very perishable jokes, such as a prime minister – ‘the Boss’ – who pulls ponytails and mispronounces words.
Britain has recently produced more-or-less serious novels about women joining its spy service (Ian McEwan’s literary flop Sweet Tooth) and protests against the CCTV-plagued ‘watched society’ (Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers). Gnanalingam reaches somewhere in the same direction, but much of A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse is more like standard civil service farce, with office types like the colleague who wastes time watching porn on his desktop; the older guy who ineptly uses what he thinks is young people’s slang; the health freak who shames people about the food they eat; and the office lady who has to be bribed with chocolate bars before she will do any photocopying. Occasionally it feels like an episode of the old Gliding On.
Okay, humour is a very personal thing, and while A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse bubbles along cheerfully enough, the comic timing can be badly out of whack. A whole five pages (176–80) about having to deal with a thick and uncooperative telephone operator? Some of its set-pieces don’t come to the boil. The ‘diversity training day’ McManus has to attend seems headed for a satirical punchline but never reaches it and simply fizzles out. Exactly halfway through the novel there’s an explicit sex scene clearly designed to be both farcical and sleazy. It could indeed qualify for the Bad Sex Award. In his acknowledgements, Gnanalingam thanks a Wellington actors’ collective for ‘allowing me to test run the sex scene in a public reading’. I hope it worked well as a performance piece.
I enjoyed reading this light and undemanding farce. The cover blurb calls it ‘Brannavan Gnanalingam’s savage new novel’. Savage? No way. Of course it touches on a very serious issue – the state spying on individuals who pose no threat to anyone. But its idiom is soufflé-light comedy. As they go about their business, I’m sure SIS men won’t be too upset by it. The odds are, it provides very good cover to be depicted as a bunch of incompetent, bumbling wallies.
NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland-based poet, historian and teacher. He holds a PhD from the University of Auckland and writes the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.