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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.
The complete stillness was more startling than any violent action. The body looked altogether smaller than life-size now that it was, as it were, stripped of the thick pelt of mobility and intelligence. And the face which inclined its blind eyes towards him – the face was entirely horrible; as ageless as a tortoise and as inhuman; a painted and smirking obscene travesty by comparison with which the devil-mask Dennis had found in the noose was a festive adornment, a thing an uncle might don at a Christmas party.
Evelyn Waugh is a writer I can return to again and again. I think Vile Bodies was the first of his books that I read as a teenager, which was something of a revelation. It was the louche pessimism of his writing that impressed me, equal parts self-aware and flavoured with schadenfreude, combined with a rapier-like wit. It would seem the man himself was a thoroughly unpleasant character – if you are interested in reading about Waugh’s life I would recommend Selina Hastings’ biography – but I always find myself putting down a book of his with a big grin on my face. The copy of The Loved One that I read was a gift from a friend back in Dublin to mark our leaving for Australia. Sadly this edition, published in 1956 and having survived all the years in-between did not last one day with me. The cover was torn off. I feel terrible about that.
Dennis Barlow is a failed English poet who has been unsuccessful in breaking into the Hollywood film industry. Fortunately he has managed to befriend Sir Francis Hinsley, chief script-writer for Megalopolitan Pictures and a fellow Englishman. Barlow has even managed to take up residence in the “only knight in Hollywood’s” home, despite the objections of the expatriate community represented by Ambrose Abercrombie. The general feeling is that Barlow in not making a decent stab at success in America is letting the side down quite a bit and making them all look a bit foolish. There is also the sneaking suspicion that he is something of a parasite, having latched himself on to Hinsley. Barlow’s solution is to find work at The Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery. If anything this adds insult to injury, but worse is to come. One day Megalopolitan Pictures summarily dismiss Hinsley after twenty-five years service. Distraught the respected man of letters does the only honourable thing and takes his own life.
Abercrombie leaves it to Barlow to make the funeral arrangements, which leads him from his less classy workplace smelling of burnt dog hair to the far more up-market Whispering Glades. Offering a number of religious and non-religious services, the funeral home works according to a number of obscure philosophies designed by its founder Wilbur Kenworthy, the self-described ‘Dreamer’. The dead are referred to exclusively as ‘Loved Ones’, who are greeted after death by the eternally happy ‘Waiting Ones’. Whispering Glades, therefore, are in the business of making the corpses under their care as life-like as possible, so that they will be well-received in this ‘whites only’, paradise. The necropolis itself is divided up into a series of themed graveyards, notable for the ostentatious level of detail.
Barlow becomes professionally envious, as he feels his position at The Happier Hunting Ground is tantamount to being ‘lower class’, somehow. He spots an opportunity to attach himself to a beautician at Whispering Glades, the wonderfully named Aimée Thanatogenos. Passing off examples of classical poems as his own work, he begins to woo her, much to the dismay of his rival for her affections, Senior Mortician Mr Joyboy. Barlow’s only worry is that before she agrees to marry him, allowing his stay in Los Angeles to continue, he might run out of poems to plagiarise.
This is a wickedly funny book about English class versus American largesse. Waugh’s descriptions of Whistpering Glades are inspired, in particular an island dedicated to W.B. Yeats’ poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, although they got rid of the bees, so that there would be “no sore fannies and plenty of poetry.” Whereas Abercrombie presents a mask of cheerful bonhomie in the face of America’s overtaking of Britain, Barlow sees his situation in entirely cynical terms. Who has money? How can he get some? Readily exploiting the people in his life, he has decided that if cannot write poetry, he will instead live comfortably.
Deliciously wicked and absurd, I loved this book.
It is so important (perhaps the most important of all the Ten Precepts of the pukka sahib) not to entangle oneself in ‘native’ quarrels. With Indians there must be no loyalty, no real friendship. Affection, even love – yes Englishmen do often love Indians – native officers, forest rangers, hunters, clerks, servants. Sepoys will weep like children when their colonel retires. Even intimacy is allowable, at the right moments. But alliance, partisanship, never! Even to know the rights and wrongs of a ‘native’ quarrel is a loss of prestige.
The introduction to this novel describes the desperate attempts by publishers to shield themselves from legal action if too close attention was paid to Orwell’s story. Unlike Animal Farm, or 1984, there was no way to pass the book off as a parable with a political subtext. Always a pragmatic man, Orwell cheerfully signed off on amendments to the text, although this led to lithographic errors that enraged him. The story features a newspaper named the Burmese Patriot. For the American edition, the author proposed it be renamed the Burmese Sinn Feiner. This speaks to the bloody-minded humour of Orwell, eagerly employing truth as a bludgeon.
The story begins with the corrupt bureaucrat U Po Kyin, a sub-divisional Magistrate of the Burmese town of Kyauktada. He has climbed up the rungs of power through deceit and a willingness to destroy the reputations of his rivals. His conniving nature is such that he is known to take bribes from both parties in a legal dispute and then resolve the matter on the facts presented. This incongruously has led to him becoming known for a curious kind of impartiality. U Po Kyin has decided the only obstacle to further advancement is his superior, the British Empire loving Dr Veraswami. The doctor is well-known and has almost become an equal to the Europeans who run the businesses in the town. Immediately the rival for the doctor’s social status begins spreading rumours and lies designed to bring the good man low.
Meanwhile the European Club of Anglo-Indian ex-patriates is thrown into dismay when their chair Mr McGregor announces that they are to vote on the matter of inviting a ‘native’, to join their select group. The most vocal opponent to the proposal is Mr. Ellis, a hateful bigot who is thrown into apoplexy at the mere thought of racial equality. Flory, a more impartial member, keeps his council, but is known by the others to be a friend to Dr. Veraswami and is accused by Ellis of being a traitor to the British Empire. Flory is also warned by his ‘native friend’, that U Po Kyin will conspire against him if he becomes too great a threat. Prepared to leave well enough alone, the self-pitying timber merchant takes no direct action, until the arrival of Elizabeth Lackersteen, a niece of one of the club members. Delighted by her apparent education and experience of the Parisian bohemian scene, Flory tries to introduce her to the sights and sounds of Kyauktada, hoping to enchant her enough that she will agree to be his wife. Much as he wishes to be free of the society of ‘pukka sahibs’, though, the broad-minded Englishman is unprepared for the danger waiting for him. Hoping to live equally in two worlds, he finds himself abandoned by both.
Anthony Burgess once proposed that Orwell’s vision of Big Brother and Ingsoc was originally meant to occur closer to the date of publication in 1949. By setting the action in the far off future of nineteen eighty four, the threat posed was lessened. In Burmese Days the threat is very much close to the heart of the British Empire.
This is a condemnation of their behavior towards the indigenous peoples of occupied lands. Flory and the doomed Dr Veraswami engage in a recurring debate as to the nature of the British regime. Flory describes it as theft conducted on a massive scale. The blinkered Veraswami assures his British friend that everything good in Burma has come from their conquerors. Both men criticize their homelands in favour of the other. Both are outsiders, belonging nowhere.
There is a blackly comic tone to the proceedings (Flory rescues Elizabeth from a docile buffalo; Orwell includes a scathing description of her bohemian past in Paris), but also a sense of anger given full force. The muted tragedy of the last sentence of the book leaves the reader feeling hollow and cold. Visceral and brilliant.