In humour, the want to stay fresh and unique should always be present. If you steal jokes or concepts, you are deemed a plagiarist. If your topics lack originality, you are uninspired.
What separates a good comedian from a great comedian is how well they can make relatable events extraordinary and how they communicate its amusement and uniqueness without losing what the audience identifies with. Peter Unwin’s newest novel, Searching for Petronius Totem, finds this balance with Hamilton flair.
The basic premise is grounded and simple. The main character, Jack, retreats to a rooming house in Hamilton, then sets off across the country find his life-long colleague who has disappeared after his memoir was revealed to be filled with lies. There is also some understandable tension between Jack and his wife, who will likely shoot him on sight should he ever return home. Nothing is too out of the ordinary when it comes to a premise, and would make a decent novel with that base to work with.
However, the more substantial situation at hand is what will likely catch your attention. The world is being taken over by a multi-national Fibre-Optic Catering business that creates chicken-like food matter that flies. It is absurd.
“There’s a certain sort of repetitive quality to novel writing now. It tends to tell the same story with the same degree of earnestness, and I definitely did not want that. I wanted something that broke the mold,” said Unwin.
It works because of the attention to detail given to the basic premise. Even aspects as seemingly minor as the main characters being from Hamilton and a decent portion of the book taking place in the city have consistent influences throughout the novel. The dialect, how each character is perceived and the mannerisms of those characters are all affected.
“There’s a hierarchy of hipness or something about where we stand. Hamilton’s sort of gloriously outside of that hierarchy. Middle finger, we don’t care where we stand, we’re the Hammer, and this is us.”
As Jack travels across the country, this manages to come up time and time again. The reputation that Toronto and Ontario has plays into the book’s humour on top of these mannerisms.
Even though Hamilton is portrayed as being outside of that hierarchy, there remains resentment when people misinterpret where the characters are from or stereotype them as a result. It becomes a clever and realistic gag that comes up consistently in the middle of preposterous situations.
“People are proud of where they’re from regardless of how small the town is or how ugly. And that sort of pride in place, like when Jack goes to Vancouver, he just thinks Vancouver is a backwater. He’s from Hamilton. It could never be as good as Hamilton.”
This attention to detail remains present in its absurdity. This Hamilton influence continues to be a key factor in larger-than-life situations. It becomes a way of interpreting edible flying mechanical chickens as a metaphor, and most of the humour can hit home even when it does not initially feel like you can identify with it.
“To a large extent, the book is about things coming to an end, like a dystopia, end of the world type of book, getting there. And also, in a sense, the end of the novel or the death of the novel. You set this within Hamilton, it’s fair to say it has this reputation that’s passed now, is a city that’s suffered from this breakdown in industrialized industry.”
Honestly, it is unknown if someone outside of southern Ontario or Canada would find the novel funny. While you could relate through other points, this is a home-grown and tailor-made novel for its audience, and it is unapologetic about being locally focused.
It is not for everyone. However, considering you are reading an Arts & Culture article in a student newspaper that attempts to cater all of its content for the students of McMaster and the Hamilton community, it is likely that you will like it.