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He gestured to the fireplace, over which hung a large framed photograph of the billionaire Da Vinci Code author, signed personally to Jean-Noël. “Look at that chin – it is the chin of a genius.” He ran his finger down the cleft of his own and mourned its inadequacy. “Mind you, I thought Digital Fortress was a piece of shit.”
Way back in 2008, when folks asked me why I intended to move to Australia, I would mention an assortment of reasons, such as the good food, sturdy economy, availability of jobs – but also another factor which caused some consternation. Namely Australian television. I am not talking about Neighbours, or Home and Away, but panel shows such as Spicks and Specks, a very funny programme that’s half music trivia quiz, half mad-cap variety hour (half hour!).
It was the good humoured content that surprised me. I grew up with Irish sarcasm and cutting British wit. Satire is the currency of my home’s entertainment, with a fair dollop of black comedy and schadenfreude. Australia seemed to me to have embraced an entirely different comedic ethos, fair dinkum banter and harmless absurdism.
Which was how I first discovered Shaun Micallef. His delivery of lines, whether it be as a comedic player, or host of the show Talking About Your Generation, seems initially quite poised, until you realize he’s speaking utter nonsense. When I discovered he had written a novel, I had to investigate what genteel gonzoism he had served up this time.
So what is the book about? Well our omniscient narrator is attempting to tell us the story of Alexander Pruitt, murdered in 2005, only to be reborn in Cromwellite Britain in 1657. Which, through a series of plot contrivances involving time travel and the etymology of the word ‘twig’, it turns out is the period most suitable to him.
Of course as history itself is warped by the events described, our trusty narrator might not even get to finish the book we are reading, or sell the rights to Hollywood, with the maniacal Tom Cruise playing him in an eventual movie. So we have two races to the finish line here, Alexander Pruitt desperately seeking out the meaning of his existence, while torn between two periods in history (as well as a brief cameo in a third); and our narrator hoping to sell out as quickly as possible before his intellectual property is unwritten.
Throw in some Masonic conspiracies, a nice hefty dig or two at Dan Brown’s expense, badgers and Blade Runner, and we have ourselves a novel. Oh and just to top it off the secret identity of Jack the Ripper is also revealed.
If this book were to suffer the indignity of a high concept, I would describe it as P. G. Wodehouse meets Philip K. Dick. It is fitting that the head of Philip K. Dick has reappeared as an A.I. oracle. Perhaps someone should ask it what it thinks of Micallef’s novel. It is manic, absurdist fare, that doesn’t take itself seriously for even an iota of a second. Conspiracies are revealed to be vapid plots without rhyme, or reason. History itself is a mutable, simultaneous projection without purpose. And Tom Cruise is a very scary individual.
The narrator’s Hollywood adventure feels like a random digression, but by that point you have become used to the editorial spats asterisked at the bottom of pages, as well as parenthetical asides to the reader, assuring them that it will all make sense in the end. I laughed out loud when Cruise himself begins to interrogate the narrator as to his peculiar ‘omniscience’, over the proceedings of the plot. It’s a brilliant moment.
If I go any further I fear this review will collapse into a puddle of sycophantic loquaciousness. Needless to say, I quite liked it.
I grabbed a bit of posterity for myself, unwittingly, when some of the fans started running towards the stage and I did my bit at the microphone. ‘Hey! You in the black T-Shirt, slow down!’ Hundreds stopped in their tracks.
Six years ago a friend of mine used to throw me some work checking concert tickets during the summer months. I needed the cash and it was a good way to see up and coming bands – as well as more established acts – for free. So at one of more popular music festivals I was at the head of a long queue of punters when I noticed a friend approaching at a rapid clip with a few mates. He had seen me and I could tell, was hoping that I would let him in gratis. Unfortunately for both of us I had a superior standing beside me with a scanning device designed to detect imitation concert tickets.
Those who know me have often pointed out that I am rarely ‘in the moment’. So it was a surprising example of quick thinking on my part that caused me to turn to my superior just as my friend reached us and state “This man has no ticket”, then laugh in his shocked face, clap him on the shoulder and wave him and his party through. My superior took it as a joke and there were smiles all round.
Michael Chugg has had a far broader career in the music industry than I. He is also just as upfront about various examples of skullduggery. It comes with the business. What distinguishes Chugg from many other movers and shakers in the industry is that he is a well-known icon within Australian music. More a force of nature, thanks to his career-long tendency to take to the stage when needed to harangue the more unruly elements of the audience, he is also responsible for bringing acts such as The Police, Bon Jovi and Pearl Jam to Australia.
He was also devoted to helping Australian acts achieve more international reknown and throughout the book sings the praises of acts whether or not he ever got a chance to work with them, such as Crowded House, The Skyhooks and Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs. Chugg also expresses his frustration with the failure of acts such as Richard Clapton and Stevie Wright in foreign markets.
On the personal side Chugg describes how his wheeler-dealer personality evolved from his working class background in Tasmania, attributing much of his behaviour, relationships difficulties and addiction issues to the earliest period of his life. It’s not many people who can claim they became a coke addict due to peer pressure from Fleetwood Mac. Successive marriages break down due to time spent on the road, plus the attendant temptations that accompanied touring. Rock bottom was a frequent destination, including spending time behind bars in a Californian jail. Eventually Chugg achieved a sense of peace in Phuket, although he continues to run his own entertainment company, utilising many of the connections he made throughout his long career.
I first heard of Michael Chugg on the excellent Australian panel show Spicks and Specks. He related the same anecdote on air that opens the book – the absurdly decadent rider demanded by Fleetwood Mac on their tour. While it is clear that Chugg has an incredible reputation, it is a shame that his voice is not retained by his co-writer. One sentence in particular I found difficult. But for my powers of persuasion, he might have avoided the lengthy jail term that was to befall him.
This book is less a kiss-and-tell in the time-honoured manner of You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, than a chance for Chugg to settle some scores. His drug addiction is invariably justified as being due to others, or his control of it being cited as superior to that of other music industry figures, such as Stevie Wright, who would endure mental health issues.
As he describes how his career with company Frontier starts to chafe, he begins to refer to them as the evil empire, complaining after he went independent that former colleagues were badmouthing him to clients. After all, he was now a business rival. His indignation makes little sense to me. One shining light in the narrative is his friendship with Aussie rocker Billy Thorpe, which is a relief in amongst all the negativity.
I found reading this book bittersweet, which is a shame.