After a week or so in the classical world, it was time to get back to a more contemporary feel this weekend; to be more precise, late twentieth-century Brisbane, a world containing a lot more pubs and not quite so many ritual sacrifices (although it has been a while since my last visit, so don’t take my word for it). Nick Earls is an Aussie author of several novels and would easily fit into the much discussed (and often derided) ‘lad-lit’ genre if he lived about 10,000 miles to the north-west. Having read many of his books about the mishaps of various semi-autobiographical characters, I thought I knew what to expect from this collection of short stories, but on the whole I was (pleasantly) surprised.
There is a wide variety of styles and subjects over the eighteen tales that make up ‘Headgames’. The five stories that form the backbone of the collection, following the everyday adventures of Frank and Philby, slightly nerdy (or, as they say down under, daggy) university students looking for love and cheap drinks, are typical of Earls’ novels. Philby, tormented by a shyness that is criminally vulgar (couldn’t resist it) and a rather embarrassing English mother with a penchant for speaking in foreign accents, meets the hyper-confident Frank in a chemistry class, a meeting which is to drag the shy, unassuming Phil out of his comfort zone (mainly consisting of his bedroom) into a world of creme-de-menthes, sausage sizzles, part-time jobs at the ‘Ekka’ (the yearly show or fair) and a general lack of sensible study. The last story in the collection has Philby in his thirties, regressing to his shy self at an after party for a film and ending up at dawn doing something incredibly unusual with a Hollywood celebrity. No, I’m not going to tell you what (or who) it is.
Many of the other stories, however, take a very different road than Frank and Philby’s light-hearted adventures. As a former doctor, Earls is, understandably, interested in diseases and illnesses (particularly serious ones), and a few of the stories are concerned with this theme. ‘All those Ways of Leaving’ is seen through the eyes of a young woman who is slowly dying of cancer and shines a light on the way people treat her in the light of her impending death. ‘Box shaped Heart’, on the other hand, looks at a young student’s recovery from a near-fatal heart condition. His determination to get back to full health as soon as possible and continue with his university career is explained not only by a fear of becoming a permanent invalid, but also by the realisation of what could happen if his friends move on without him.
In ‘There must be Lions’ though, the focus (I think…) is more on mental illness than a physical ailment. A woman in a hospital or clinic believes that lions enter the building every night and devour the patients’ limbs (which somehow grow back again before the morning comes); despite her best efforts to capture one, they always seem to subliminally persuade her to release them from the nets she has caught them in. Her painstaking efforts to prove to the world that the lions are real, including her hundreds of letters to experts in the field of lions (and the Lone Pine Koala sanctuary, just in case), are a scary indication of just how deluded people suffering from a mental illness can become.
This slightly off-beat story actually turned out to be a fair representation of the style of the rest of the tales in this book. From a young woman’s never-ending trip to a gigantic, ever-expanding shopping centre, and a sadistic P.E. teacher’s sad demise while only able to bark out instructions with his last breaths for his students to keep running, to a grumpy unicorn, angry because his female housemate continues to use the toilet (when everyone knows that it’s a reading room and that the garden is the appropriate place to do your business), and a lab assistant who ends up more lab than assistant (woof), Earls displays a deft surreal touch that keeps the human emotions close at hand despite the detour to Planet Bizarre. Incredibly, I found myself reminded of a certain famous author who has written some, shall we say, slightly unusual short stories: the Australian Haruki Murakami?
It’s a bit of a stretch, and Earls has yet to produce any lengthy works which compare to Murakami’s more famous novels, but the comparison is apt at times on the short-story front. If Murakami had been brought up in Brisbane by embarrassing English parents, studied medicine at university, got into indie and alternative music rather than jazz, developed a liking for sickly green liqueurs over Cutty Sark whisky and favoured shy, clumsy central characters over cool, anonymous protagonists, he may have turned out a bit like Nick Earls.
Whether that would be a good thing or not is for you to decide, dear reader; if you can get your hands on one of Earls’ books in your part of the world, I would urge you to give him a go (if only to expand your world view to include a nice city on the other side of the world where footwear in supermarkets can be optional). Who knows, you may even decide to visit Brisbane after reading about it in his stories. Just a word of advice in case you do though: watch out for the unicorns. I hear they can be very temperamental at this time of year.