Shaun Micallef, Preincarnate: A novella (Hardie Grant 2010)
Shaun Micallef is a comedian who affects a kind of supercilious gaucherie, a little like Stephen Fry without the erudition or the authentic blue-ribbon class credentials. I’ve mainly seen him on television, and been amused, though not enough to make me watch Talkin Bout Your Generation, the TV game show he MCs, unless by accident.
This book was a Christmas present from a friend who doesn’t watch a lot of television and was enticed by the stylishly witty cover. I gladly accepted it as a challenge to my prejudices. Sadly, I gave up a third of the way through, my prejudices unallayed. There’s quite an interesting plot involving time travel, culminating (I peeked at the last couple of pages) in logically determined absurdities redolent of the climactic scenes of excellent farces. My problem was that the writing was constantly striving to be ‘funny’, interrupting itself with strenuous jokeiness or sketch-comedy interludes. For example, in a seventeenth century context:
Moray wore a parrot hidden under his vest during all his subsequent meetings with the Dutch émigré , and every conversation recorded by the parrot was later transcribed. It was an arduous process. The parrot had a learning difficulty and Moray would often have to trick Leeuwenhoeck into repeating entire conversations, sometimes fifteen or twenty times. eventually, enough evidence was amassed to establish a prima facie case.
It goes on with the parrot shooting himself out of guilt, and none of it moving the plot forward perceptibly. Funny, if you’re in the mood. Otherwise annoying.
Clive James doesn’t like to be thought of a comedian, and has said so in a number of places, including in an interview with Peter Thompson on ABC TV’s Talking Heads:
I’m not really a comedian and I don’t even tell jokes. If I do anything funny it’s because I’ve expressed something real in a very short space. The result is, if you make an article interesting enough on that level … So you’re saying something complex but some of it comes out funny, and you get this reputation as a comedian, then journalistically these two reputations get in each other’s road. ‘He can’t be serious because he’s funny,’ ‘He can’t be funny because he’s serious.’
I hope I’m wrong, but it looks to me as if Shaun Micallef has bought into that journalistic dichotomy, and opted for funniness at the expense of all else.