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Maybe the Horse Will Talk

December 16, 2019

Maybe Horse

Review: Elliot Perlman, Maybe the Horse Will Talk, 2019

Literary authors turning to high-paced commercial fiction to satirise what’s happening to our society – is this a trend? Example 1: Heather Rose on the greed and immorality of our politicians in Bruny. Example 2: Elliot Perlman on the toxic workplace, corporate greed and sexual harassment in Maybe the Horse Will Talk.

Each of these novels is utterly different from the author’s previous work. Perlman’s preceding novel, The Street Sweeper, is a complex book encompassing the Holocaust and the American civil rights era (my review here).

Maybe the Horse Will Talk is a fast read with many laugh-out-loud moments. The protagonist, Stephen Mazarov, is a lawyer working for legal firm Freely Savage Carter Blanche. The novel begins with his cri de coeur, ‘I am absolutely terrified of losing a job I absolutely hate.’ He knows that his psychopathic boss, Crispy Hamilton, will soon sack him, and he will not be able to pay his mortgage.

When Malcolm Torrent, the CEO of the firm’s biggest client, is dissatisfied with Hamilton’s dismissal of a spate of sexual harassment claims, Stephen sees an opportunity to buy time and keep his job. He convinces Torrent to appoint him as the company’s lawyer for the harassment cases with the promise of making the problem go away within a year. He moves to an office at Torrent Industries.

When he reads the four plaintiffs’ affidavits, he is shocked and sickened. “He wondered what he was doing defending Torrent Industries against these sexual harassment claims. This wasn’t why he had gone to law school.”

When Stephen finds out that A. A. Betga, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, is seeking substantial payouts from the company, Stephen objects. The men have committed crimes, so shouldn’t the women go to the police? Betga explains what would happen in court – the women would have their “entire sexual histories … levelled against them” and would be faced with the de facto onus on them to prove that they are not ‘easy’ and that they should be believed. … Not only would they never get their privacy back, but they’d find it hard to get a job of equivalent standing.” For the plaintiff’s sake, money must substitute for justice. It is troubling to think that men who commit crimes can have their employer buy their way out of punishment.

Perlman uses humour, madcap action and clever storytelling to illustrate this and other issues around sexual assault in the workplace. Stephen joins forces with Carla (one of the plaintiffs), Jessica (head of Human Resources) and A. A. Betga to work towards a good outcome  for the plaintiffs.

Perlman insists that his novel is not a satire, as there is nothing in the book that hasn’t happened or couldn’t happen. This reminds me that in Heather Rose’s Bruny, government intentions are so outrageous that if the novel had been written ten years ago, it would have been deemed too far-fetched. Given all that the Australian government has done over recent years, the shocking plan is all too believable.

Is our world overtaking our ability to write satire?

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