Shaun Micallef and the Booker Prize

A warning first up: if this blog dissolves into nonsensical rambling, please be so kind as to quietly move on to something more substantial. (Pretty much anything on the Overland site without my name attached to it.) Because, quite frankly, this could get quite silly.

'Preincarnate'Last Wednesday night, the lovely Shearer’s bookshop in Leichhardt hosted an evening with Shaun Micallef.

‘Why on earth would they do that?’ You may ask. ‘Isn’t that the chappie off the television? What was he doing in a bookshop?’

Well if you stop asking so many questions and allow me to carry on, I may well be able to enlighten you. You see, dear Overlanders, Mr Micallef has written a book.

‘Oh great,’ you might say. ‘Just what we need, another successful comedian drolling on about their abusive childhood and how it led to a life-long addiction to Easy Off Bam (!), resulting in a very public fall from grace involving a Dancing With the Stars contestant.’

To which my answer would be three-fold:

a) No, it’s fiction.
b) What do you mean another book? I haven’t seen anything like the one you just mentioned. In fact, it sounds like cracking good read.
c) Stop interrupting.

The book in question is titled Preincarnate and involves murder, time travel, Tom Cruise and quite a charming Dutch character called Antony van Leeuwenhoek. (Whom Micallef claims is a real person who actually existed, as real people generally do. Although, Micallef admits, the real Leeuwenhoek probably was not as much of a perverted hunchback as he is in the book. Shame.) Is the book any good? Well, it is if you are a fan of Shaun Micallef. As he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Whether something or someone is funny or not depends on the sense of humour of the person on the receiving end.’

If you are not a fan of Shaun Micallef, I think there’s an effective medication you can take. In the meantime, I’m not sure we can be friends.(Which is probably fine with you. You didn’t come here you looking for friends, you came here looking for intelligent discussion on the situation in Afghanistan. And ended up with this instead. Sorry, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

I first came across Micallef as a twelve-year-old in the care of a gullible babysitter called Tegan. My brother and I convinced dear, sweet Tegan that we were allowed to stay up and watch Full Frontal. Thus, in-between some skits that I didn’t understand, I was introduced to Milo Kerrigan. I spent a great deal of time afterward practicing my own Milo Kerrigan impersonation in front of the bathroom mirror, while most girls were practicing the locomotion. (I like to think I became quite good at it, and would quite happily post it up for you to see, except my fellow tells me it’s the most unattractive thing he’s ever seen. And I value our relationship.)

So, you see, objectivity isn’t going to be my strong point here. Preincarnate involves all the things I adore: heavy use of parenthesis, footnotes, illustrations, an interjecting narrator, and many jokes at the experience of the Dutch. Micallef claims that he didn’t set out to write a novel he just started writing; it wasn’t a skit, it wasn’t a screenplay, it wasn’t a poem or a musical, the only thing left for it to be was a novel. (Or in this case, a novella – Micallef confirms that it is indeed two words short of a novel.) He said that it turned out to be more difficult than he imagined. I certainly hope this doesn’t mean that he won’t write another one. I think Micallef could win the Booker.

‘What!?’ You might say. ‘This woman is off her trolley! Where’s the link to that intelligent thing Jeff Sparrow wrote about WikiLeaks? Get me out of here!’

To which I would reply, ‘Fine, go then. This was never going to work out anyway, let’s just try and remember the good times.’

If you choose to stay, I will at this time turn your attention to an article by Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson, which appeared in the Guardian. Jacobson says, ‘Show me a novel that’s not comic, and I’ll show you a novel that’s not doing its job.’

This is something I have always believed, but never had the guts to say. Now I have Jacobson in my corner and I’m feeling a little braver. Jacobson falls nicely into the category of writers I like to call Funny-Sad. I’m sure there’s a more sophisticated literary term to describe this style of work, but I never got through my Derrida readings at uni. (There just weren’t enough jokes.) Maybe the proper term would be ‘tragi-comedy’, but to me that sounds a little grandiose. I’m going to stick with Fanny-Sad. I believe Funny-Sad© to be a style more powerful than any other, because, as Jacobson writes, it disarms. It’s a quality I have found to be more prevalent in films than in books these days – Wes Anderson and Charlie Kauffman are two names that come instantly to mind – and this may be due to the fear which Jacobson identifies:

There is a fear of comedy in the novel today – when did you last see the word ‘funny’ on the jacket of a serious novel? – that no one who loves the form should contemplate with pleasure…We have created a false division between laughter and seriousness, between the exhilaration that the great novels offer when they are at their funniest, and whatever else it is we think we now want from literature.

Let’s not kid ourselves, (I know, I’m sorry) Preincarnate is pure comedy. But last Wednesday night, when talking about his experiences in television, Micallef said that he has learned that comedy is most satisfying when it is the seasoning, rather than the meal itself. Complete satire is entertaining, but all it does is ‘Push the whole thing over and dismantle it without building anything in its place … Comedy should be the scaffold which you build around, to really hammer that metaphor to death.’

There aren’t really any serious moments in Preincarnate; it is an unashamedly comic novel, the jokes are the meal. This isn’t a weakness. To use another literary term, it’s ‘bloody entertaining’ stuff. But it does lead one to imagine just what Micallef might be capable of if he took the same approach to prose as he has to television. Will he win the Booker? Who can say? Probably next year’s judges.

In the meantime, please write another one, Mr Micallef. And do you think you could resurrect Meat Boy? My goodness that was some funny stuff.

Claire Zorn

Claire Zorn is a Sydney-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been published in various literary journals and she has a particular passion for writing young adult fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays