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Monday, 17 September 2012

Book review: Welcome to Normal, Nick Earls (2012)

I also just finished the novel The Fix (2011) by Nick Earls so I can say that this writer is completely on top of both forms: the novel and the short story. In The Fix Earls also talks about normality as something to be desired, but in 'Welcome to Normal', the short story that gives Welcome to Normal its title, Normal turns out to be the name of a town in Illinois, that Mid West bastion of normalcy which has given the USA two presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. The story is strange in a Roald Dahl kind of way, with its ending performing a little flick of the tail - a fish swimming out of range as it glides past in clear water - that changes the way we perceive everything that has gone before. This is Earls' style throughout the collection: there's the slow build-up - a spring gently coiling over time until it gains the necessary margin of strength - and then the quick release at the end that sets the whole show off on its true tangent. Reality revealed. "This," Earls seems to be saying at the end of each story, "is what is actually normal." No less normal for being slightly disturbing; "making strange" or "defamiliarisation" is a concept central to modernist art and it has been a strategy followed by some of the great short story writers we are all familiar with. Nick Earls show us that he is also one of those masters.

One thing that strikes the reader of this collection of short stories is how many of them are set overseas. It's not just the title story. 'The Heart of Robert the Bruce', which is the longest story in the collection, and is about a couple on holidays, is set in Spain. 'Range', about an Air Force employee driving home from his work directing aerial drones, is set in Arizona's arid regions. 'Grass Valley', about a boy and his father on holidays, is set in California. And 'The Magnificent Amberson' is about two Queensland winemakers on a business trip in Taiwan. Only in 'Range' is the protagonist not an Australian. This interest in places overseas might have something to do with Earls being a Queenslander living in Brisbane. What is normal, after all, about living in the tiny bottom corner of a state the size of Alaska, and where the open ranges extend like forbidding wastes seemingly forever to the west, to where there is anyway nothing much at all, merely the equally uninhabited regions of the Northern Territory and of northern Western Australia. Installed on the narrow coastal strip bordering the Pacific Ocean, Queenslanders face outward - north and east - toward other places. Their identity is hardly defined by a need to look south, toward the main population centres of Sydney and Melbourne. There is more than that. There has to be.

In 'The Heart of Robert the Bruce' we see two people, a couple, on holidays in Spain. The story opens in the hotel room, and from the way they talk it appears that one of them is a woman and one a man. We also feel that the woman is not quite happy with the man; there is something behind the scenes, that we do not yet know about, that has her permanently on edge. The reality - what is normal - turns out to be quite different, of course. That is Earls' way. In the course of their days in Spain the couple meet a Scottish couple of Pakistani extraction. One the protagonists, the one we think is the man, has a Scottish name. The two couples lunch together during their day trips and become acquainted, or as familiar as it is possible - or desirable - to be on a short holiday overseas. There are tensions. The Scottish couple are expecting a child. Our protagonists seem to find this fact, and the normalcy of the Scottish couple, threatening. The two of them make jokes, sometimes at the expense of the Scottish couple, as they lunch between visits to notable local places of interest. In the middle of the story we get that flick of the tail, a hint, just a word, that turns the whole story on its axis and shows us what really is normal. It's a long story at 83 pages but the wait is worth it. It's a story with big themes: immigration, sexuality, tolerance.

Little stories each with a mystery at its heart comprise the contents of Welcome to Normal. Sometimes it takes time to reach the twist that sets the whole thing on its correct axis, but it's always worth it.

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