Reviewed: Colin Varney, Earworm, Margaret River Press, 2018
Unusual narrators in fiction demonstrate how a willing suspension of disbelief touches every aspect of the reading experience. After a few pages of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, we are reconciled to the fact that the narrator is a foetus. In Tibor Fischer’s The Collector Collector, we grow comfortable under the guidance of a narrator that is a 6000-year-old Mesopotamian bowl. Likewise, in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, we accept a narrator who is dead. Fiction is replete with narrators that are atoms, horses, bees and death itself. Colin Varney’s Earworm adds a song to this list of unusual narrators.
The story is told from the point of view of a 1990s popular number, ‘Empty Fairground’, a substantial hit in its day for the writing partnership of Jones & Jones. The problems established by choosing a bowl, foetus or song as narrator generate a similar set of solutions. The narrators are garrulous, self-involved and invested with magical properties that allow them to interrogate the psychological difficulties the characters endure. In Earworm, the song is lurking in the background of each character as it has served a crucial role in their life in some way, such as being the background track of conception or other moments of wild passion. Of course, an earworm is a ‘sticky song’—the one that stays with you whether you want it to or not. The characters have a tortured relationship with the melody, which, as narrator, is pleased when it is played, disappointed if it is stopped and horrified when it is sampled:
Surfing the doof-doof was a sample of me. I was horrified. I’d been exploited to add interest to a repetitive electro plod. Sampling is Frankensteinian. Having a body part scalpelled away and sewn awkwardly onto a halfwit or hunch-back. Music only fit to be heard by an ear grown on the back of a mouse.
The occasionally waspish character of the narrator gives life to what might otherwise have been a tortured conceit. However, it attempts to take a tolerant view of human foibles, temptations and infidelities, claiming repeatedly that it is not here to judge.
As a song, the narrator has a particular interest in rhythm and syncopation and, in the form of words, rhyme and assonance. Some of the verbal fireworks are witty—a finely calculated act of lovemaking becomes a ‘legsspreadsheet’. Over the course of a long novel the play with language risks becoming grating and artificial, such as a description of a publisher as ‘eager beaver Eva’. One might suspect that a popular song is going to have a limited range of rhymes within its reach and that its grammar is going to collapse frequently in the way of modern lyrics. But it does have a good ear for the music of modern life: ‘As he waited at the lights his head waggled to a revenant refrain. The grumble of traffic groaned my chorus. Rush hour rhythm. The persistent honking of an angry motorist took on a carnival vibe.’
Amusingly, the song/narrator has contempt for novelists who feel that they have any skill with assonance or rhythm—it suggests the short song lyric is much more demanding. A novelty narrator, however cleverly executed, still has to tell a worthwhile story. Earworm begins with Nicole, a hardworking student in Hobart whose father has a history of depression. When he dies suddenly, she enters a spiralling dissociative state, fearing she has inherited her father’s depressive propensities. She deletes ‘Empty Fairground’ from her iPod, neglects her study and her boyfriend, Bryce. She takes up with a gormless friend and then is raped by a stranger in a back alley behind a pub. Eventually her mother reveals a secret about her parentage that ends with her pilgrimage to Adelaide, where Jones & Jones will be playing the song live at a festival.
The focus of the second half of the novel is Spencer, a middle-aged lecturer in Adelaide. His wife, Vivienne, is a successful novelist, though she grows increasingly distant from her husband. They are both haunted by their stillborn child, Bethany—Spencer sees her ghostly shape lurking and Vivienne’s books all seem to circle around the recovery of a missing child. Spencer considers beginning an affair with Marla, a mature-age student recovering from a relationship gone bad. Again, the song plays an important role in the relationships, with Spencer’s synaesthesia detecting music as colour.
The plot suggests that dynamics such as secrecy, misunderstanding, infidelity and desire repeat over generations, just as the chorus of a song replays unless a crescendo intervenes. The climax of the plot is the live concert at which Jones & Jones perform ‘Empty Fairground’ as the plot lines of the major characters coalesce. This crescendo leaves some room for uncertainty; here the novel provides a useful reference to a minor character Lily, who is working on a PhD thesis entirely devoted to ‘Empty Fairground’. Entitled ‘Who Writes the Songs: Mondegreens and the Simultaneity of Meaning’, the thesis covers that peculiar tendency of listeners to mishear the lyrics of songs and substitute their own meanings—a result known as a mondegreen. Although we are led through the story by a lively narrator addicted to wordplay, it is ultimately the reader who must generate meaning from the flawed, hesitant and confused lives of the characters.
Earworm is a novel filled with love for popular music and the way earworms accompany us through life events. The author’s musical background allows him to create a song/narrator that experiments with cadences and assonance to produce a text that generates syncopation in both senses—a variation of a beat and a compressed and consistently inventive use of language. •
Simon Ryan teaches English and cultural studies at the Australian Catholic University. He hopes one day to gain employment as a hermit.