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The Invisible Man

Richard Condon was a cynic of the upbeat type…his belief that everything is basically shit did not get in the way of his pleasure in making fun of it.” – review of The Manchurian Candidate.

That seems to be the ideal stance for a satirist to adopt. Satire is fuelled by anger and a sense of injustice, but if the satirist becomes too involved, and loses the ability to maintain a lofty perspective, then the satire deteriorates into simple rhetoric and even abuse.

As the great Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun observed: “The artist and the polemicist need to be separated if both are to thrive.

As an example, take the work of the American satirist Carl Hiaasen. His first solo novel, Tourist Season, published in 1986, was a comic treasure. He managed to keep the reader’s sympathies evenly divided between the dull, plodding hero and the flamboyant, larger-than-life antagonist (who also happened to be a mass murderer, in the service of ecology).

His second, Double Whammy, and his third, Skin Tight, were a little more black-and-white, baddies versus goodies, but still excellent fare. As was his fourth, Native Tongue, but there was a growing feeling that his characters were dividing into two camps — the corporate greedheads, who were vile in every aspect, and the valiant environmentalists, whose sex lives were as healthy as their ethics.

The harder that Hiaasen trumpeted the green message, the more obvious it became that he was pushing this barrow, and the less effective his satire became. The trend continued with Strip Tease (remember the awful Demi Moore/Burt Reynolds film?), Stormy Weather, Lucky You and Sick Puppy. You could spot the baddies a mile off, because not only were they anti-green, but their entire characters were vile, from personal habits to lack of intelligence.

Hiaasen seemed to realise this, after 15 years as a novelist, and changed the formula somewhat in 2002’s Basket Case, which dropped much of the polemic and reintroduced Hiaasen’s high-energy style. Sadly, he returned to type in Skinny Dip and to awful effect in the appropriately-named Nature Girl, which even his greatest fans couldn’t find many good words about.

Hiaasen has written 11 novels, and this isn’t one of the best 10,” an Amazon reviewer wrote.

In part, Hiaasen was a victim of his own success. When interviewed about his early work, he said: “The stakes are so low when you start — you’ve got nothing to lose — so you just cut loose and have fun.

Satire in fiction is the art of delivering a message without seeming to deliver one; the more the author’s hand is visible, the less effective the satire.

As Elmore Leonard said, he makes an “attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

The writer has to get out of the way and let their words do the talking.

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