A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse

By Brannavan Gnanalingam, 2016

A scathing satire of Wellington bureaucracy, the ineptitude of the surveillance state and the mediocrity of mainstream New Zealand masculinity. Politically, it captures a very specific point in time, but also works in a more general sense as a parody of the attitudes and style of the inarticulate and narrow-minded ‘hollow men’ who still have a stranglehold on power in New Zealand.

This is the most ridiculously Wellington book I’ve ever read, a cringing comedy of corporate absurdity with dark and depressing consequences.

The protagonist Rachael McManus is a highly educated ‘knowledge worker’ in the Wellington bureaucracy, bouncing between agencies. After a confusing interview process, she lands a job at the ‘Alarm and Response Ministry’—a parody of the SIS. Everyone knows that the SIS was a purposeless and pointless organisation after the Cold War ended, and seized upon Bush-era terrorism fears and Islamaphobia in order to justify its existence. This is usually looked at from a structural perspective, not from one of personal experience, which is where A Briefcase comes in.

Her induction involves signing a bunch of complicated non-disclosure agreements before she’s dropped straight into an investigation of a suspected ISIS terrorist with no training or support on the job. As she struggles to figure out what’s expected of her, she also has to deal with being the only woman in the room surrounded by of a bunch of Pakeha idiots, mysoginists and workplace bullies, who stumble around messing most things up and being generally awful.

Then there’s The Boss, a wisecracking, pony-tail pulling Dear Leader, with a habit of swooping into the office unexpectedly to check on things and deliver absurd rambling speeches. This needs no explanation.

Is the portrayal of these civil servants and intelligence officers accurate? Too harsh? Unkind or cruel? We are constantly told about their dedication, about the great work they do and how unfortunate it is that their work has to be hidden and the public doesn’t have enough knowledge of their achievements. My personal view is that this is bullshit. If any government agency is unable to publicly demonstrate the benefit they provide to society, then it is quite right to question them. Further taking into account their history of blunders and screwups, going back decades, as well as associations with political attacks on the Prime Minister’s opponents, there is a definite place for critique and parody.

With so much doubt as to the competence of these agencies, one of the strongest effects of A Briefcase is the question it raises of whether things really are like this.

In the form of a novel, the stripped-back satire can feel awkward at times. Its set pieces dealing with ludicrous office politics are laugh-out-loud funny, but many of the supporting characters come across as straw men and cardboard cut-outs, set up to fail from the beginning. It’s clear from the confident minimalism of how their speech and actions are described that these characters were mapped out with backstories, goals and motivations. But none of this detail makes it into the story, which is less nuanced as a consequence.

The payoff is in the incisive social commentary and observations of Wellington and New Zealand culture.

One worry I have is that writing that reinforces the trope of SIS incompetence actually plays into their hands in some ways. It’s possible—though unlikely—that they are deliberately cultivating the public appearance of incompetence which helps mask a much more focused and dangerous hidden organisation in New Zealand society. This doesn’t make criticism of their unethical pursuit of Muslims any less valid.