Book review: If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead by Andrew Nicoll

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

At first gloriously silly glance, If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead by Andrew Nicoll seems like a very silly novel.

A riotously funny, over the top tale of a bunch of circus performers, then based in Germany, who decide to pull the grandest con of all by having one of their own posing as the new king of Albania, the better to steal the riches of that country’s treasury, it is, by any measure, an hilariously loopy story.

Think the written equivalent of it’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or The Great Race, a novel which possesses a very 1960s mischievous vibe where going too far isn’t quite far enough.

It’s a novel with, at one point or another, an old man trapped in a caravan while bombs rain down upon him in WW2 Germany near the end of that conflagration – the humour comes from the self-admitted absurdity of his chosen mode of shelter – a camel, inept Austro-Hungarian troops on the cusp of WW1, a motley bunch of circus performers, a yacht journey across the Adriatic and a coronation ceremony so grandiosely, ornately pretentious that it comes very close to tipping over into parody.

As a comic piece of writing, it is brilliantly good, managing to deliver the laughs as you would expect while never ending up so silly that it uses up all its comedy fuel too early and wearing the joke to thin.

“‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ said Arbuthnot. ‘But, Mr Witte, please believe me, there is a gale coming. It’s going to blow through the whole of Europe and I don’t know what will be left it has passed. You may sail through it with me but, I promise you, you will not sail through it without me.’

‘Then it seems I have no choice,’ I said, and I shook his hand.

The Professor held his head in his hands. ‘Better sell your soul to the devil. These people are maniacs. They are demons.’

‘Oh, it’s far, far worse than that,’ said Arbuthnot. ‘Some of them are poets.'” (P. 158)

And yet, AND YET, for all that of deeply-amusing, well-written hilarity, full of characters who amuse and delight almost perpetually, there is a great deal of existential angst and big ticket life issue musing hiding in plain sight.

Take for example the fact that the narrator and key protagonist, Otto Witte, a circus acrobat so handsome he has won the heart of the stunningly beautiful and sweet Sarah and the body and affections of the buxomly boisterious Tifty, is narrating the events that form the backbone of the book many years as he sits in a rickety caravan as Allied bombs rain down upon him and a Third Reich close to collapse.

His situation may be absurd, as noted, but as he explains why he isn’t in a bomb shelter like everyone else – weeks earlier, hundreds had died when a shelter was hit and collapsed in on itself – and why he needs to unburden himself of his extraordinary story, you come to appreciate that he is a man that, though he isn’t without his trademark sense of humour and self-aware sense of the inherent silliness of life, is coming to grips that his life may be at an end.

Faced with the threat of imminent death, and he most certainly is, he is impelled to put his story down on paper, to document his larger-than-life tale if only so that one day someone might wonder why a dead man in a caravan thought it better to stay outside and write than go into a shelter and hopefully survive the night.

Than in itself might seem like fancifully stupid motivation but couched as it is in the moments when he faces the very real prospect of his life coming to an explosively violent end, it actually makes sense.

Andrew Nicoll (image courtesy Booktopia)

Perfect sense, in fact.

It’s but one example of a novel that fulfills the basic purpose of any piece of comic storytelling – be funny but have an existential sting in the tail.

If you think about it, the very best humour employs the whole “spoonful of sugar” principle; the idea that if you keep people laughing, and If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead does that so beautifully well you will be in awe of it on almost every page, then they won’t notice the very serious musings on life buried deep within the pages.

Those very substantial, weighty ideas are there in multitudinous abundance, everything from true love vs lust (Sarah vs. Tifty with the former winning out in the end), quick material gains vs. soul-enhancing higher purposes (Otto goes from thief to genuine ruler, well as long as it lasts anyway), peace vs. war (and how people prefer the former but almost expect the latter to occur before too long) and rapid descent into old age from youth to an almost dizzying degree of disorientation.

That is just scratching the surface of a novel that is very much a very thoughtful, seriously-inclined iron fist inside sitting inside a cheeky, whimsically silly, British-vibing farcical velvet glove.

“When I was looking out the window just then, watching the fires burning, I caught sight of myself reflected in the glass and I knew it was me, of course, and yet I hardly recognised myself. I’m an old man. I knew that, but it still came as a shock. That’s not the face I see when I remember the farm. It’s the face I wore in the circus. It’s not the face they saw at my coronation. I look at that face and I wonder, Is that me? Is it? How can I be that little boy on the farm? How can I be the man that all those girls went mad for, the man all those Albanoks cheered for, the man Sarah loved? I wonder sometimes where all those other Ottos have gone, if they are still in me and I am still in them or if they have gone and they exist only in photographs, the way that I existed in the window a moment ago.” (P. 261)

That actually takes a good deal of talent and hard work to get right since one step in either direction and If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead either becomes a drama with weirdly-inappropriate jokes or a comedy that is so intense that the humour struggles to escape from the black hole of its furrowed-brow pontificating.

Andrew Nicoll is clearly up to the task and then some with his absurdist masterpiece ticking all the boxes over and over with aplomb and a sure sense of self, its inherent mix of comedy and seriousness melding so seamlessly that you slide from one manically funny moment such as trying to get a camel onto a boat while you’re under fire from angry troops to the very loss of a friend, all in the space of a few carefully-orchestrated paragraphs.

It’s quite the ride, help together by powerfully well-wrought characters, dialogue that zings off the page with ear-pleasing alacrity – granted you are reading this but so alive are the situations that feels like a classic movie playing in your head – and wordplay that manages to slip weighty observations into the most glib and silly of scenes.

If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead is a highly-amusing class act that gets right to the very guts of so many issues so manifestly well that it’s only when you finish its rollicking, jaunty race to the narrative finish line on page 422 that you realise that not only have you smiled, laughed, guffawed and giggled in recognition more than you have in quite a while but that you’ve thought your way through all kinds of big, serious issues in the company of some very fine characters whose lives, like your own, straddle that very strange divide that life evinces so well where the silly and serious often sit cheek by jowl and we have to find a way to (hopefully) make it all work (which may, or may not involve becoming the king of small southern European nation; hint, hint, it’s way more fun if it does).

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