The flat man

In his excellent portrait of Scott Morrison, titled The Game, Sean Kelly writes about a theory of literary characters suggested by E. M. Forster in a series of lectures delivered just before the Great Depression. Forster argued that there were two sorts of characters, either flat characters or round characters.

Persuasively and in sharp detail, Kelly makes the case that Morrison is a flat character. Such a character could be “captured in a sentence or two”. They might have a catchphrase. Their advantage to the novelist is “that they never needed to be reintroduced, because they were so easily recognised”.

This is the perfect description of a prime minister who lives without meaning. He is the ultimate flat character: a signifier more than a person, whose outline he has worked hard never to fill in.

Kelly takes this a step further, to James Wood’s notion of the “public character”. King David in the Bible is presented this way – a character with no interior, “no past, no inner life, no memory to trouble him”. Again, this is Morrison.

“At some point,” Kelly writes, “the construction of a self for public consumption – a task in which we are all constantly engaged – may become difficult to untangle from the actual self. Morrison’s tendency to turn away from the past and towards the present, over and over, with no sign of remembering what has come before, might at one point have been merely a useful strategy for public presentation; or perhaps, more likely, the tendency was there and became more pronounced with time as Morrison found a use for it, the way we all lean on our native talents.”

This description is especially pertinent as Morrison begins to campaign in earnest for the next election. He is once again the character best known to us, a man drawn up in a few sentences. His entire person is collected in the phrases that have become his purpose: technology not taxes, can-do capitalism, who do you trust?

It is not uncommon for a book to be wiser than its subject. It is strange, though, for a book to know its main character better than he knows himself. Perhaps this is because Morrison is so purely transactional. He is all deal and long ago forgot what it is he’s dealing in.

Kelly’s book works from the premise that Morrison’s electoral success is not an aberration. His victory was not an accident. His place as prime minister tells us something about who we are, as all prime ministers do. This makes his pitch all the more stark: Is Australia a flat character, or are we something more?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 20, 2021 as "The f lat man".

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