When I told a friend recently that I was enjoying reading Nick Earls’ latest novel, Analogue Men, she leaned forward and said effusively, ‘There’s nothing wrong with that’. I can’t pretend these weren’t reassuring words – particularly coming from a fellow bookseller – but they also made me wonder why some readers persist in the belief that the sort of light-hearted, character-driven comedy produced by authors like Earls is intrinsically less worthy than serious literary fiction. It’s as much a challenge to make your audience laugh as it is to make them gasp at the elegance of your syntax or the gravitas of your ideas.
Earls, whose latest book returns to the gentle, feel-good humour that made him famous, knows exactly how to elicit chuckles. He talked candidly about the craft of writing comedy at a Brisbane Writers Festival session earlier this month. Analogue Men follows a well-intentioned middle-aged male protagonist, who’s out of his depth both personally and professionally. It’s a perfect reconnection with fans of Earls’ career-defining nineties novels such as Bachelor Kisses and Zigzag Street, which portrayed 20- and 30-something narrators contending with domestic and relationship dramas. More than a decade on, Earls and his core readership face a new set of problems – among them, the endearing first-world question of how to be an analogue person in an increasingly digital world.
Analogue Men puts these contemporary Gen X dilemmas under the comic microscope: forty-nine-year-old Andrew has left his private equity job and start working at a Brisbane radio station in a bid to spend more time with his family, who seem more interested in their alarmingly vast collection of iPads than in reconnecting with the long-absent man of the house. Numerous pratfalls ensue, many of which are related to Andrew’s gradual bodily disintegration – ‘I am not fat,’ he maintains, ‘but I am pushing a thin man’s clothes to the limit’.
At BWF, Earls revealed that he worked ‘very hard to get the timing right’ for the book’s amusing set pieces, which often involve compromising physical positions and unfortunate substances such as superglue. These scenes, he explained, ‘advance the narrative, and test my central character in ways that he needs to be tested’. Audiences can easily laugh at embarrassing situations in which no one gets hurt (at least, not too seriously), but what’s most important to Earls is ‘what’s at stake for the character’. Earls learned these tactics when he was writing in the nineties, and wanted to employ a similar approach with an older protagonist: Analogue Men ‘was going back to that kind of style’, but ‘with a 40-year-old facing technology, the risk of obsolescence and teenage children’.
Another recurring aspect of Earls’ novels is the city of Brisbane, a place that acts as a creative lynchpin for his work. ‘When I started writing, I didn’t set stories here,’ Earls said. ‘I was often setting them in generic cold-climate cities, and they never really found their feet. It didn’t really get the most out of my characters, either, because I didn’t know where they were’. Earls believes that this was a factor of ‘growing up in a Brisbane that had very few of its own stories’. When Earls was young, Brisbane novels ‘were things like David Malouf’s Johnno, but David Malouf left Brisbane in 1954 and Johnno was set in the mid-twentieth century’, long before Earls and his Irish parents set foot in Brisbane.
Brisbane’s lack of literary identity began to shift during the nineties, when Queensland’s capital became a place where you could ‘potentially sustain a career’ in writing. The city now features in many books for adults and teenagers, which Earls feels is healthy because ‘Brisbane deserves to have its place in fiction as much as anywhere else’.
Unsurprisingly, Brisbane is the backdrop for Analogue Men, which is set in the inner-city suburb of Auchenflower and references local landmarks such as Toowong Village and Lang Park. For Earls, situating a novel in a real location ‘gives me what I need. I can spend my creative energy on the characters and the story, not on inventing the place. And if I know the place, it’ll give me more than I’ve even bargained for – you get more choices.’
This Brisbane-centric approach might make Earls’ job slightly easier, but it’s clear that his readers remain at the forefront of his mind when he writes. ‘This is a book for readers,’ he said of Analogue Men, and, so far ‘the response has been what I hoped it would be’.
Earls’ ability to connect with his core fans – to reflect their own shifting problems and priorities in the lives of his characters – is perhaps the secret to his success. Writing, Earls observed, is a curiously paradoxical profession with ‘two extreme parts: one is solitude, where you lock yourself away with no input and create something; the other is where you travel the country, perhaps the world, talking about yourself… Somehow, you have to develop the facility to handle both of these things’. Earls continues to achieve this fine balancing act, and I’ll continue to enjoy Analogue Men, safe in the knowledge that there’s nothing wrong with that.