Short Story Sunday: ‘Earworm’ by Julian Gough

"Town & Country" book cover
Faber anthology of Irish Short Stories: “Town & Country” edited by Kevin Barry

Recently I’ve gotten into short stories in a big way. Most of what I write at the moment is short stories. I’m going to try and review one most Sundays because there is some incredible, often overlooked, stuff out there in this format.

‘Earworm’ is by Julian Gough and is the second story in Town and Country, this year’s Faber anthology of New Irish Short Stories. It is edited by the wonderful Kevin Barry, though he did not contribute a story. Two of my friends had stories in it so we all went to the launch at the Dublin Writers’ Festival and had a great night. Theirs were the only stories I had read in advance of the event so on the bus home I began to duck in and out of other stories.

I’d never even heard of Julian Gough before but this story… Wow. Earworm is a word from German (ohrwurm) that describes a catchy piece of music. The story follows two young computer geeks, one based in America, the other in Germany, who meet on 4chan on Star Wars day (May the 4th) and really hit it off. The story is littered with contemporary references like this and it’s a breath of fresh air to a lot of Irish stories that would have you believe DeV’s vision of girls dancing at the crossroads still reigns supreme. While they have the potential to become annoying they never reach that stage. Rather they make the characters very authentic seeming and they fit in with a story based around the internet, and the references are deftly explained by their context so the reader is never left in the dark.

The characters in this decide to build a virus that will spread through computers to humans. They mathematically analyse popular songs and why people keep listening to songs they know are shit, why things like Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ get so many plays. It’s hard not to get caught up in their obsessive research and joy as their theories are proved correct time and again. The writing has an amazing energy to it and has a few things to say about regret, about relationships and about governments control and censorship of the internet (which I particularly like in light of all the talk about SOPA and PIPA from a few months ago). These messages are subtle and take a back seat to the plot, though it might have been nice to learn a bit more about the characters and I’m not keen on the final lines of the story.

When they release their song onto the internet all hell breaks loose as the world slows down to listen, and listen and listen, the music industry panics and governments see this as cyberterrorism.  The collection is fantastic but if you’re in Easons and can’t make your mind up about buying it have a sneaky read of this story first, it won’t disappoint.

Notable Lines: “Did I feel this good because I’d helped build this song, or because the song would make anyone feel this good? TB was lying on his bed, laughing hysterically. We need civilians, I said. We need to check…”