One of the difficulties that beset Joost Van Dongelbraacke throughout his career as a so-called “suburban shaman” was the ruinous cost of insurance. Having been dragged through the courts by a Pointy Town quantity surveyor who claimed emotional distress, disfigurement and loss of earnings after being entranced into a week-long state of whirling ecstatic frenzy, Van Dongelbraacke vowed never again to practise his mystic arts without being covered. His first approach was to a greasy insurance agent with an unfortunate cowlick of hair who dithered and faffed and seemed more intent on his executive desktop bonsai garden than on the urgency of the suburban shaman’s business. The next three people he consulted were by turns lost in wistfulness, egg-bound, and unseemly, and one of them failed to provide Van Dongelbraacke with a suitable chair in which to sit during their appointment. He was ushered into a seat that emitted pneumatic hisses and tilted and swivelled on tubular steel pistons. It was, Van Dongelbraacke thought, the most unshamanic chair in which he had ever tried to sit. He judged each of the three to be unsuitable.
And then one evening in a tavern the suburban shaman struck up a conversation with a mountebank who was passing through Pointy Town on his way to a seaside psychic smorgasbord. Ferns and berries decked the brim of this mountebank’s hat. His visage was half flesh, half mascara. At a certain angle you could have mistaken him for the god Baal. It was difficult to imagine that he had once been an actuary, but that was indeed the case, and he had maintained many friendships with past office colleagues in the insurance industry. Listening attentively to Van Dongelbraacke’s plight as the two of them sank pint after pint of diluted rosemary-and-hibiscus syrup on the tavern balcony, looking out over the filth-strewn fields which stretched unbroken to the horizon, the mountebank eventually took a card out of his pocket and handed it to the shaman.
“This is the man you need,” he said, “His premiums are ridiculously expensive, you may be alarmed by his taste in cloisonnÃ©e enamel ware, and never, ever try to make him laugh. But those things aside, he is as fine an insurance man as you will find on the terrestrial globe.”
Van Dongelbraacke was puzzled by this reference to a globe, for in his belief system the earth was cylindrical, tapered at one end and ineffably mysterious at the other. But he liked and trusted the mountebank, whose pincer-liked perspicuity appealed to him, as did the hat-brim decked with ferns and berries, a look which the suburban shaman was to ape in the coming years.
Six weeks later, after a particularly exhausting session of communal hysteria around a bonfire in one of those filthy fields, Van Dongelbraacke took the bus to O’Houlihan’s Wharf. He had the insurance man’s card in his pocket, and berries on the brim of his hat. The ferns, he decided, would have to wait. At the time of which I write, the pier at that brine-soaked hellhole had not yet collapsed, and it was in a booth at the far end, a mile or more out to sea, that the suburban shaman came face to face with Jean-Claude Unanugu.
It’s a name you might know, especially if you are an aficionado of the kind of insurance man who spends his leisure time as a creative genius. Charles Ives, Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka spring to mind, and Unanugu can be added to their company. Acerbic, battered, chippy, Drambuie-soaked, eerie, foolish, grunting, and hot-to-trot, Jean-Claude Unanugu was the self-styled “Grand Master of the Goofy and the Macabre”. In his numerous pulp paperbacks, he explored with forensic precision the narrow territory where that which is goofy meets that which is macabre. Sometimes, in his work, goofiness wins out. At other times, he favours the macabre. At his best, the two modes, or registers, or styles, or styles, or modes, or registers, or styles are inextricable, melded and fused and joined and inextricably fused and melded, in a joinment of characteristically Unanuguesque inextricability. It can be hard to see where the goofiness falls off and the macabre begins, just as it can be hard to see where the macabre ends and the goofiness takes over, so inextricably fused are they in Unanuguesque meldment.
Now, you might be tutting irritably that I am repeating myself, or at least writing in a peculiarly annoying and inelegant manner. In fact, that was a clever pastiche of Unanugu’s early style, seen to best effect in early trash like The Macabre Thing From Goofy Town or The Goofy People From The Macabre Village. Later in his career he devised new tricks and quirks, and I am not alone in thinking that no other writer has ever made such fantastic use of italics, block capitals and exclamation marks. One of the great pleasures of a middle period Unanugu novel such as The Macabre Yet Goofy Duckpond is the manner in which each sentence is given equal weight, every single one ending in an exclamation mark. It is the only book I know which, when read aloud, demands to be shouted out at the top of one’s voice.
Much like Stevens and Ives, but possibly not Kafka, Jean-Claude Unanugu kept his working and creative lives separate. When devoting his time to insurance, he set up in his booth on the pier. It was a small, cramped booth, of wood and canvas, with a tin roof which resounded under the rain, and as you know it often rained in O’Houlihan’s Wharf, for that was how the gods had ordered things. It was teeming down on the day Joost Van Dongelbraacke disembarked from the bus and made his way through the ill-starred streets to the pier. There were numberless booths and kiosks on the pier in those days, and the suburban shaman found himself distracted by all sorts of depraved enticements as he shuffled along, stepping carefully on the rotting planks. He passed by Edna The Squid Woman, Little Severin The Mystic Badger, The Astonishing Food-Splattered Jesuit, Kim Fat Goo The Evil Tattooist, David Icke, David Blunkett, Bonkers Maisie And Her Scrunched-Up Dishcloths, and the Poopsie Clutterbuck Sextet, who performed the latest news headlines in the form of madrigals. A gust came in from the west and blew Van Dongelbraacke’s berries off the brim of his hat into the churning sea. Far out, half way to the horizon, he could see the tell-tale silhouette of a tugboat. What, he wondered, was it going to tug out there? Closer to shore, he saw dozens upon dozens of buoys, red and yellow and blue buoys, each with its own chain. Van Dongelbraacke had always loved the sound of chains clanking at sea, and he stopped a moment on his prance along the pier to listen, but the faint clanking he heard was soon drowned out by the barking of a bedraggled Twinkly Twirly Man in the doorway of a nearby booth, who was manipulating a saucepan and a bus ticket in remarkable ways. Such antics, thought the shaman, had what Roland Barthes would call jouissance. Like almost everybody who uses the word, possibly including Barthes himself, he had no idea what it meant, but he was a shaman, a babbler of incantations, so why should he care? He tossed a coin at the feet of the Twinkly Twirly Man, told him that he admired his jouissance, and headed on.
Inside his booth, as fat raindrops pinged and panged on the tin roof, the Grand Master of the Goofy and the Macabre was blotting the ink on a freshly written insurance policy that was neither goofy nor macabre. It was, if anything, a piece of actuarial magic that the suburban shaman would have admired for its hallucinatory qualities. In Jean-Claude Unanugu’s suspiciously manicured hands, insurance policies became things of beauty. If Von Dongelbraacke’s beliefs were true, there is no doubt that Unanugu’s policies would have to be filed at the end of the earth that terminated in ineffable mystery. Blotting done, the insurance agent cracked open another bottle of Drambuie. His own credo allowed for a globular earth rather than a cylindrical one, though privately he held that this globe was, like his stories, both goofy and macabre. In that sense, he felt himself to be a realist, an attitude which had caused him no end of grief with the O’Houlihan’s Wharf Pier Booth Rental Authority, which preferred to rent its booths and kiosks to the non-reality-based community.
A mere six or seven prancing paces away from the booth now, Van Dongelbraacke too saw himself as a realist, although for him the “real” existed on an ethereal plane accessible only through whirling about around a bonfire while chanting gibberish. But, as he always liked to insist, it was very choreographed whirling, and absolutely specific gibberish. That was why a hapless goon like the litigious Pointy Town quantity surveyor could not just whirl and babble without the guidance of a shaman. And that was why the shaman needed insurance cover. And that was why Joost Van Dongelbraacke poked his head in through the entrance flap of the wood and canvas and tin booth on the pier and saw…
Why did I resort to an ellipsis? I did so partly in homage to late-period Unanugu, where the texts of such novels as Beyond The Macabre Yet Goofy Duckpond actually have more ellipses than words, and partly because I wanted to go and make a cup of tea before bringing this narrative to a close. Jean-Claude Unanugu’s work – both in fiction and insurance – was fuelled by Drambuie, but mine is dependent upon copious cups of tea. I make no apologies for that. It was Thomas De Quincey who said “tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally coarse in their nervous sensibilities… will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectuals”. Whether or not I am an “intellectual” is but futile conjecture, but I suspect I have more chance of being one through regular tea intake than by bandying about the jouissance word. Now, that is quite enough twaddle. Let us return to that ellipsis.
Joost Van Dongelbraacke poked his head into the booth and saw Jean-Claude Unanugu, the Grand Master of the Goofy and the Macabre, sitting at a little fold-out camp table, swigging Drambuie and ready to sell him some hot-to-trot insurance.
Joost Van Dongelbraacke poked his head into the booth and saw… his DÃ¶ppelganger. For a split second he thought he was looking into a mirror. The resemblance between the two was uncanny. Indeed, it was macabre. Was it also goofy? Why, stap my chives, yes it was! And what happened next was goofier still, and even more macabre. For Van Dongelbraacke went into the booth and closed the flap behind him. There were witnesses to this, including the bedraggled Twinkly Twirly Man and David Icke, and though they were not realists, their accounts, painstakingly taken down by Detective Captain Cargpan’s doughty squad of gumshoes, were deemed reliable by the O’Houlihan’s Wharf Constabulary’s investigative Ã¼berbrains. So we must accept that there were two men inside that booth on that sopping wet Thursday afternoon. Yet only one ever emerged. Was it Jean-Claude Unanugu or was it Joost Van Dongelbraacke? It was neither, or it was both. It was, we are forced to concede, an entirely new being, an entirely new kind of being. I know this may sound implausible to members of the reality-based community, but let me ask you this. Is there any other way to explain that, within days, the O’Houlihan’s Wharf Chamber of Commerce registered a new company which offered Shamanic Insurance Solutions, to whom fees could be paid in the blood of ducks and the bones of ospreys and in pointed sticks set afire?