Analogue Men by Nick Earls
Random House RRP: 32.99
The idea of feeling like an ‘analogue man in a digital age’ describes any of us in any situation where time has marched on and left us scrambling to catch up. Technology provides us with potent examples, of course, and Earls uses the radio industry in this latest novel as a touchstone against which he can bounce different ideas about change.
There’s a lot of hyperbole around Nick Earls’ books – all those ‘laugh out loud funny’ kind of lines that show up in the reviews and cover blurbs. Earls’ writing is, of course, funny, but there’s always been more going on than the headlines suggest. In Analogue Men, the comedy is broad, with more than a hint of gross-out, but the intergenerational relationships are the book’s real highlight. Technological progress is fast, but it’s no more bewildering than the ageing process or the almost daily shifting of the goal posts that comes with parenting.
Earls has written on a wide range of topics, but is best known for his bewildered-bloke-books, like Zigzag Street and Bachelor Kisses. This one follows that formula; meet Andrew, a 40-something business man returning to family life in Brisbane after several years as a globetrotting big wig. He’s taken on a less prestigious but only slightly less stressful job in order to spend more time at home. His mission is to turn a tired radio station – Spin99 FM – into a profitable concern, principally by shifting some of the dead wood. That dead wood, in the form of old school DJ Brian Brightman, is less than impressed by the gathering winds of change. Brightman is one of those ‘gotcha call’ kind of guys who thinks the PC police are ruining their best material.
As Andrew tries to get his head around the future of radio, he is also struggling to find his place again in a bustling household that’s established its own routine in his absence. His wife is a busy GP, his teenage kids talk via gadgets he’s never heard of and his ailing elderly father is a constant reminder of the march towards the inevitable. Andrew represents a point in life that a lot of us probably take too long to arrive at, where money and career suddenly seem much less important than family. He longs to get to know his kids on a deeper level (just as they’ve reached the age when they no longer want to talk) and he’s finally ready to really listen to his father’s stories about his own career and life experiences, in the knowledge that there’s now a time limit on those opportunities.
Andrew’s father is recovering from rectal cancer, managing a stoma that renders him far more dependent on help than he’d like to be. His frailty is doing nothing to allay Andrew’s own fears about getting older. Andrew himself has a mild irritable bowel, a persistently painful butt muscle and various other creaky bits and pieces; daily reminders that he’s ‘been alive for all eleven incarnations of Doctor Who’. By contrast, his teen twins are at the starts of their journeys – tentatively exploring identity and sexuality, perhaps not appreciating their healthy bodies as much as they should. What’s that they say about hindsight?
Radio as an industry is rich with examples of the pros and cons of ‘progress’: digital music is far more efficient to play, store and manage, but vinyl still sounds better; syndicated radio shows bring high profile comedy or national news stories to regional audiences, but locally-based DJs help build community. Earls discusses changes to the ways in which we access music more broadly along with examining some true history of the Brisbane radio scene. The shift from music as something we enjoyed as a community (tuning in at particular times for particular shows, or the anticipation of new releases) – is contrasted with music as an on-demand commodity listened to privately via devices. Nowadays ‘music is everywhere, on every device smarter than your toaster’, but that doesn’t make us any better at appreciating it. It’s more observation than judgement; not necessarily claiming that everything was better in the old days. But Andrew does conclude that communicating in person with the people you love is far superior to conducting ‘real life via the sloppy pixilations of Skype’, and so on.
The slapstick humour in this novel revolves around arseholes (literally and figuratively) and a whole lot of bodily fluids. I sometimes found this jarring, coming too soon after a really touching emotional interlude, but the many medical calamities are a strong reminder that we are but fragile humans, albeit with a constant soundtrack of whizzing and beeping gadgetry. I found fewer ‘laugh out loud’ moments here than I have in others of Nick’s novels, but I also found many beautifully articulated snapshots of life in the years when we are parents and children at the same time. The tightness in Andrew’s chest as he tries to help and guide his kids without crowding them is palpable. As a mother of young kids, this taps into my biggest fears about my own rapidly approaching future. But I suspect this is a story that will be appreciated very differently by different generations of readers…and so it goes.